Dr. William Durbin

Shinken is a very important word in the Japanese language, and one with martial arts overtones, which has a very special lesson for modern martial artists. The word is made up of two Kanji, characters of the Oriental language. Shin means real, Ken means sword, together they make Shinken which means earnest or serious. From a martial arts point of view then Shinken says that the real sword is one which is earnest or serious. This word gives to us the true nature of the martial arts, which means it should be serious training engaged in with an earnest desire for personal development.

But Shinken also gives us a view of the thought of the martial artists in the early ages of Japan and Okinawa. Everything in the language of the Japanese reflects the importance of the martial arts. And the warriors who created the martial arts created an image of life and duty that was a guide for the rest of the nation. In Okinawa, where weapons were eventually restricted and finally banned altogether, the Shinken, seriousness, of the martial arts were at a very high level.

The Okinawan concept of martial arts can be expressed in the following phrase. 'To battle the Katana, use a To'. Or in other words 'to battle the sword, use a sword'. The word Katana and the word To are different pronunciations of the same Kanji. In the historical setting we are well aware that the Okinawans did not have swords with which to battle the Japanese Katana, so what did this really mean to the Okinawan people of old? Simply put the Shinken of Japan, became the 'real fist' of the Okinawans. The empty hand skills of the Okinawans was a blend of indigenous Te, Minamoto Bujutsu, and Chugoku Kempo (Chinese martial arts). To some it was called Bushi Te, to others Karate, and still more called it Kempo, but to all who practiced the martial arts of Okinawa, it was Shinken, serious.

Before the Satsuma invasion of 1609, the Okinawans for the most part lived in peace, especially after the unification of Okinawa by Sho Hashi. Okinawa became a major center of trade and as such had a great deal of contact with other cultures, some peaceful, others not. There were also Wako, pirates, that operated in the area, and since the nobility, at this time did possess weapons, but the common people did not, it was necessary that the empty hand and common weapons be a match for the swords they might have to face from these marauders.
Thus it was that the Okinawans developed a psychology for dealing with the idea of empty handed facing a sword. To them it was simply a matter of seeing an opponent facing them with a sword, and regarding him as underarmed, in that they faced him with 'six' swords. The Okinawan found a mental strength by seeing both fists, both hands, and both feet, as his swords.

The fists of Kempo became the primary weapon of the Okinawan martial artist. What we call Seiken, proper fist, today, was known as the Daikento, great fist sword, in Okinawa's past. The martial artist who raised his fist to battle an enemy did so with the state of mind that he weilded two swords for his defense. For the Okinawan martial artist, this was not a thought, it was truth. The Okinawan trained so that to be touched by the fist was to be just as seriously injured as if touched by a sword. In so doing the Okinawan martial artist also trained to avoid being touched, through proper Taisabaki, body movement, by either a sword or the hands of an opponent.

This in itself emphasized the nature of Shinken, serious, training. It must be understood that a lack of movement on the part of an Okinawan martial artist was the same as a death penalty. However, in modern times as an emphasis on sport has permeated the practice of Karate, the dodging techniques of original Okinawan martial arts has been nearly lost. This was partly in regard to the fact that the sport footwork of Kendo was integrated into Karate when it first entered Japan. If you look at the original Okinawan martial arts you see a great emphasis on dodging, and this has been preserved in many of the Yakusoku Kata, prearranged forms, of Okinawan Karate.

More important than the Yakusoku Kata of the modern art is the Jiyu Kata of the ancient martial art refered to as Bushi Te. In that art, which is still taught in a few Okinawan martial arts schools, Taisabaki, or body manipulation, as it is sometimes called, refers to moving the body out of the line of intersection of a weapon, in particular, the sword. When Kata is practiced in the manner of Bushi Te, there is no set pattern. The practitioner visualizes multiple opponents and defends against them using first and foremost dodging techniques and then a combination of throws, jointlocks, blocks, punches, and kicks.

Most important, as the Kata progresses the Bushi Te practitioner visualizes that he/she evades being touched by any type of weapon, from swords to hands. Nothing is suppose to touch the practitioner, but the martial artist deftly touches and defeats his imaginery opponents through unbalancing techniques, pressure points, and vital point strikes. The swords of the Okinawan martial artist hands and feet struck with deadly force to accomplish the goal of effective self defense.

Along with the Daikento, the second set of swords was called the Shuto, hand sword. This is the knife edge of the hand used to strike deeply into vital nerve centers collapsing vital veins and nerves. While a steel blade was designed to sever an arm or leg, the fist sword and hand sword were designed to cause the same kind of damage while leaving the body intact. Most people don't realize the actual damage that is possible to the nerve and veins from a well focused strike, when the energy is concentrated in as small a part of the body as conceivable. This is why the Daikento concentrates it's energy in the first two knuckles of the fist, and the Shuto focuses the energy in the very edge of the hand. The smaller the striking area the greater the impact force.

The final set of swords are found at the end of the legs and are the Sokuto, foot swords. The idea is that the edge of the sword, foot, can concentrate the great strength of the leg into a withering strike. Because of the greater size of the leg the potential for damage is much greater than with the arm. There is the story of an Okinawan martial artist who became involved in a fight with an antagonist. With a quick kick to the leg he rendered his opponent helpless. However complications to the leg eventually caused the death of the assailant.

For too long have the sport aspects of the art of Karate been allowed to overshadow the original purpose and practice of the Okinawan martial arts. There is nothing wrong with the sport of Karate nor the showmanship which is also a part of any public endeavor, however these parts of the whole must not be allowed to replace the true practice of the ancient Okinawan martial arts.

When students hear martial arts masters say that real Karate is winning a tournament, which changes hands every year, they begin to see a lack of consistency in the ability of the Karateka. Or when claims are made that great masters break large amounts of wood and bricks, only for the public to see untrained people perform the same feats, martial arts begin to fade away as simply a manner of developing circus tricks.

But the ancient skills of developing the body to a high level of strength and flexibility, the intense study of anatomy and vital points necessary for effective self defense, and then the psychology of developing the mind to see in the very hands and feet the weapons of defense with the strength of the sword. To develop such a heightened sense of technical skill and confidence is a major accomplishment which acknowledges the genius of the Okinawan martial arts masters.

But more to not only give a practitioner the sense of technical skill and confidence they need to be excellent in self defense but to also give the martial artist a genuine ability along with such a sense of self worth, that the student does not feel the need to prove his/her self against another, is truly the greatest gift of the Okinawan masters. When one knows that one carries with oneself the authentic swords of Okinawan warriors, designed to be able to protect oneself, even from steel blades, then a sense of accomplishment and strength will invest the spirit.