Dragons and daffodils, castles, collieries and choirs; men in cloth caps, women in strange cone-shaped hats. The land of song, a nation of Anglophobes harmoniously singing Cwm Rhondda on the way to work and Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau on their return. Golden ages of rugby with illusive half-backs; rugged snow-capped mountains plunging into lush green, river valleys sporadically stained black by mining and heavy industry.
To the world, thanks to films like How Green Was My Valley and Very Annie Mary, this is Wales. A land of myth, legend and quaint tradition; where the simple natives speak in an ancient, incomprehensible tongue and everybody goes to chapel on Sunday. We Welsh have been more than happy to perpetuate, nay, milk this romantic notion of our proud land - It gives us a sense of heRRRitage you see! It also attracts tourists and their wallets to our little principality from all over the world like; uh, let me think of something appropriate for the purpose of this article; ah got it! Like Vale Karate to medals!
Better this vision, than the drug consuming, homicidal and demented example of typical Welsh life given in Twin Towns! That being said, I have had the quite unique pleasure of residing in a particular and, shall we say, far more colourful, estate in the Pontypridd vicinity than anything depicted in that film. I now absolutely believe in the old adage of, “truth is stranger than fiction” because if I wrote a book about some of the things that went on in that place, nobody would ever….Hmmm; now there’s an idea.
The Welsh nation IS fiercely proud of its identity, if occasionally nationalistic; we DO suffer from an unfortunate case of Anglophobia, ranging from a bit of friendly banter at the match to a mislead and ridiculous hatred of our English neighbours; but we ARE unrelentingly optimistic, and let’s face it, we have to be with our Rugby team, of which we are always filled with pride, no matter the result. COME ON WALES!!!
ENGLAND? I find the attitude many of our Welsh brethren hold toward England and the English quite ugly and not just a little annoying, particularly as I’m writing this article during the 2010 soccer World Cup month. I am no football fan by any means but I’ve lost count of the number of people, friends included, who’ve spewed the “anybody but England” garbage at me whilst donning the shirt of an English Premier League team. The same players they practically worship week-in-week-out are somehow now the spawn of Satan, a reminder of English invasion and oppression over our peaceful people. Yeah right! GET A HOBBY GUYS!
I am thrilled and relieved to say that this is not an attitude that prevails or is in any way encouraged in the Welsh Karate fraternity. After all it was great English Karateka like Sensei Andy Sherry who introduced the art we love so much to our nation. Every year the incomparable Sensei Dave Hazard, the very best of English and world Karate talent is invited to Wales to help improve our technical and sporting skills. Preferring the practice of karate as a pragmatic self-defence system, I travel all round the country to train with, in my opinion, the best instructor of Karate bunkai these islands have, Iain Abernethy, a proud Englishman and EKF instructor.
So even if it is only for the World Cup month, shout COME ON ENGLAND! Or perhaps just whisper it quietly to yourself to be safe.
The fantastic thing about world Karate and the world’s karateka is that we are all one big family. Regardless of country, affiliations or club; we are all one big class if you like. For Karateka, more than any other sportsmen, are by their very nature incessantly hungry for knowledge and will glean it from as many sources as possible. Therefore, the very best instructors I know are the ones that can hold their hands up and say, “I don’t know.” then suggest an instructor who may; the very best instructors I know are not too proud or too egotistical to train in someone else’s dojo; some of the very best instructors I know are WELSH and that is something of which we should all be fiercely proud.
So dragons and daffodils, castles, collieries and choirs; yes, we’re all well aware of the romantic stereotypes of Wales and Welshness but haven’t you noticed how COOL contemporary Wales has become in recent years. Cardiff dominates peak time television with Dr Who and Torchwood; Barry Island has become world famous due to the incredibly popular Gavlar and Stacey; and have you noticed that Welsh news readers and weather girls have invaded London.
Our incredible tradition in the performing and fine arts dates back centuries and prevails as strongly as ever with the likes of; Terfil, Jenkins and Church; the Phonics, The Prophets, The Manics, and of course Sir Tom. We have an incredible tradition of world class poets, authors and artists such as Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl and Kyffin Williams.
Hollywood, once the property of Griffith Jenkins Griffith (1850-1919) a Welsh dairy and sheep farmer from Bettws, has remained the domain of the dragon with huge stars of the past like; Richard Burton and Glynis John and a current crop of film superstar Taffs including; Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins, Ioan Gruffudd, Zeta Jones-Douglas and Michael Sheen.
We have a rarely talked about tradition of unsung heroes; pioneers and innovators in the world of science such as Dr Lyn Evans, the head of the Large Hadron Collider project at CERN. So, if the scaremongers are to be believed, it could be he, a Welshman who brings about the end of the world! Stick that on your C.V!
From influential, revolutionary politicians to ruthless, blood-thirsty pirates of the high seas; Wales, but a tiny speck on the world map, has produced world beaters. Hmm, should we be proud of the exploits of Captain Henry Morgan and Co….YARRRR! Why not?
Our tradition for producing world class sportsmen and women is also truly phenomenal; Rugby legends aside, we’ve had globally successful competitors in sports ranging from athletics to horse trials and from bowls to boxing. What of Karate? Can we claim to have a Welsh tradition of our sport, of our beloved art? I’ll come back to that question in a moment, but first:
Tradition / Traditional: Words synonymous with Karate and the martial arts and equally contentious. Karateka from a variety of styles and even practitioners from within same style, self-styled factions calling themselves “REAL Karate”, “SPORT Karate” or “JKA style Karate” all claim to be using the traditional form of the art. So who is correct in their conviction?
If we look at the definition of the word traditional the simple truth of the matter reveals itself.
Traditional – Def: The passing down of elements of a culture [karate in this case] from generation to generation.
So there it is, as plain as day, written in black and white and smack dab in front of your baby blues. You see, it all depends on what your interpretation of traditional is. We as human beings have had to adapt and vary our lifestyles since the dawn of man in order to survive as a species. Likewise, Karate has had to adapt and vary from generation to generation to suit individual body types and abilities in order for it to survive and become accessible to the masses.
Gichin Funakoshi recognised and acknowledged this in his book Karate Do: My Way of Life. Written at a time which, many karateka today herald as the cradle of traditional karate and believing that the art he bequeathed to us is the Okinawan form he inherited from Itosu Yasutsune and Azato Yasutsune. The great man reminds us that this is clearly not the case and that Karate had already rapidly evolved then and will continue to evolve as necessity requires for all time.
“Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practice today is not the same karate that was practiced even as recently as ten years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the karate that I learned when I was a child in Okinawa.
In as much as there are not now, and never have been, any hard and fast rules regarding the various kata, it is hardly surprising to find that they change not only with the times but also from instructor to instructor.”
Funakoshi concludes with, “What is most important is that karate should be simple enough to be practiced without undue difficulty by everybody, young and old, boys and girls, men and women.”
So, throughout the centuries since Karate’s beginnings on a tiny island in the East China Sea, many interpretations of it have been made and therefore many traditions have been created and recreated; including whichever incarnation of it you happen to participate in now. Ergo, my humble opinion is that we are all traditional karateka; the traditional Karate debate is moot so let’s all stop arguing the point eh!
Right then, I believe the question was – Can we claim to have a Welsh tradition of our sport, of our beloved art Karate? Answer - Absolutely, YES WE CAN!
Karate’s arrival in Wales is, around about now, reaching its half century, which is ample time to claim it as a Welsh sporting tradition; especially when you consider that the form of the art we all recognise today as Japanese karate, is itself still not a century old and only really began to gain momentum around the rest of the world after World War II, just sixty or so years ago.
The pioneers of Welsh Karate, including, I’m proud to say, my father, laid solid foundations way back in the early 1960’s and began to build from nothing, a great tradition of Celtic Karate excellence that continues to this day. As early as 1977 the Welsh team was beating the world’s best, taking a silver medal at the European Championship in Essen. The most memorable fight I can remember was also in the decade of flares and afro hair, though I cannot remember the exact year; it was when Cardiff’s Von Johnson absolutely destroyed the legend that is Terry O’Neill in the KUGB British finals at Chrystal Palace.
Welsh tournament success has continued at varying levels in every decade since Karate was introduced to our fair land and we now have a current crop of young athletes that are promising truly great things for the future. On the rare occasions that I attend tournaments, as a spectator these days; I am completely blown away at the skill levels of our young competitors. Funakoshi was absolutely correct when he said “Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too.” Witnessing the athleticism of today’s youngsters is sometimes comparable to watching a scene from a Jackie Chan movie. Amazing! As well as top class competitors, it’s also great to see that we have two world class officials as well. Officiating tournaments is a thankless task, so to have risen to world status must have taken incredible dedication and incredibly thick skin.
Success in the sporting arena is not the only measure of Welsh Karate’s growing tradition of excellence. We have governing body of our sport recognised by the Sports Council that allows us greater funding and grant aid than ever before. The NVQ instructor qualifications that are now available through the governing body, ensure that our instructors are suitably trained not only to teach the art but to recognise and deal with one of the most emotive issues of our time; that of child abuse. I truly believe that this qualification is one of the biggest improvements to happen to Karate in Wales. The piece of mind the NVQ certificate gives parents when they first hand the duty of care of their children over to you is priceless.
Of course, everything is not all wine and roses as there is also a tradition within a tradition when it comes to Karate; a tradition of fracture and in-fighting, splits and spats; old rivalries and personality clashes that have endured for decades and still occasionally sour the cream of our sport. I often wonder if, like our nationalistic rivalry with the English, some of these people even know what they are arguing about anymore or if throwing a spanner in the works has just become an endemic flinch response.
I would urge our younger generation of instructors and our up and coming students not to follow suit and allow the old views and arguments of others to besmirch the promising future that our sport in Wales has. Our tiny nation has some of the most studious, knowledgeable, talented and experienced instructors the United Kingdom has to offer, many of whom I count as old colleagues and old friends. The men and women I speak of are not pre-occupied with political one-upmanship and their vision of the future for Karate is not blurred by belligerence. The men and women I speak of realise that with a little good will and a lot of hard work our tradition of producing incredible karateka is secure for decades to come.
Yes indeed, the father’s of Welsh Karate, some now reaching the twilight of their careers, others sadly no longer with us on this earth; can look at, or down on their legacy with great pride and satisfaction but also perhaps, with just a little trepidation. Surely now it’s time for some metaphoric hatchet burying, reconciliation and cooperation. Only then will the full scope of Wales’ rich talent pool of karateka be truly visible and available to us; and only then can the fathers of Welsh Karate and those of us responsible for its perpetuation rest assured that it will continue long into the future, constantly evolving and improving. The passing of time will then, I’m sure, firmly establish Karate as a true Welsh sporting tradition built of success, built of tolerance but most of all, built of friendship.
So, dragons and daffodils; castles, collieries, choirs and Karate-do.
This is my Wales.
No Anglo Saxons were harmed during the writing of this article.
Written by Andy O’Brien, Karate Union of Wales 6th Dan
Author of, The Little Bubishi: A History of Karate for Children
www.littlebubishi.com email: Andrew@littlebubishi.com