A Few Symbols you might encounter in Karate
The Eagle --
The "Three Tears" --
Peacocks ..or not? --
Okinawan Flag --
Yin and Yang
Why "we" have an Eagle
The history of karate in America is very
unique. Karate mainly made its way to America "officially" by way of
US service men who encountered the art while stationed in Okinawa
after WWII and learned their chosen art from first or second
generation Okinawan or Japanese masters. Many of todays American
Okinawan karate pioneers owe the bulk of their martial arts heritage
to those servicemen that brought those skills and early teachings
(and in some cases teachers) to the U.S.
One such story is that of Master Ansei Ueshiro a student of Grand
Master Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu who made the voyage to
the states in order to bring his karate to America.
Which he did by way of a special visa obtained
through the efforts of James Wax, an US marine, who while stationed
in Okinawa, was the first American to earn a black belt in
the Shorin-Ryu system under Master Ueshiro. On Sept 15, 1962, Ueshiro
entered the states as one of the first "Oriental"
bring traditional karate to this country.
It is in recognition and respect for the part played by U.S.
servicemen in the history of karate and in particular Okinawan
karate that we have adopted a stylised American Eagle displayed
supporting the Hidari Gomon into our
martial arts crest. Back when I began studying Shobu-ryu (now
Tomasu Shorin-ryu) they
had a bad logo design of a "Phoenix" (see peacocks below) that my instructor Sensai
Ybarra said on several occasions, "looks like a dead chicken" and
"makes no sense". I drew this eagle in an art project created
to be part of my dan petition in 1985.
Peacocks on Certificates
"Wait, that's a peacock? Why is that a
I have seen all kinds of responses to this question. Everything from "they look
martial art'sy" and "because the feathers are long and pretty" to
"to show you can feel cocky". In Asia, the feathers of the peacock are considered
auspicious and protective. They are very hardy and intelligent birds and on large
estates they were sometimes kept as reliable "watch dogs" calling out and raising
their feathers when arroused. Feathers in the down position such as found on karate
certificates being a sign of safety and good fortune.
They are however, most likely not peacocks at all, but based on a mythical Chinese bird associated
with fire called "Fenghuang", a phoenix-like creature (notice the
clouds of "smoke") that is something akin to a
dragon. They are usually depicted artistically as a peacock especially
when they are drawn with their long tails (there is a lot of artistic license
in how they should be represented).
The Fenghuang is on many official Chinese documents and in emperial designs.
The bottom half of most karate certificates have a border arranged
Paulownia leaves and Chrysanthemums which were used as the crest in the emperial court
Japan. This leads us to believe the origin of the certificate
Fenghuang/Paulownia border design and red "official" kanji stamps is probably one of those many customs
imported from China to Japan and is a harmonized piece; of Phoenix (from China)
with Paulownia and Chrysanthemums (from Japan).
These designs were historically only used in the imperial court and have
just started to be used by government and municipal offices (as well as karate
certificates) in modern times.
Hidari Gomon - "The Three Tears"
This common symbol is called the Hidari Gomon
and it was once the Royal crest of Ryukyu Kingdom in Okinawa and on their
original flag. In Japanese the symbol is
called the Hidari mitsudomoe and is a common design element in family emblems and
corporate logos. The Hidari Gomon is the primary traditional symbol of Okinawa. It is
unclear who used the symbol first but it has special significance to the
Okinawan people, especially those practicing the ancient art of Okinawan Karate.
We know this symbol as the "three tears" and as representation of "death
before dishonor". There are many variations to the story behind this symbol but
here gist of it. The three tears represent three men; a 16th Century
Okinawan and two Japanese samurai. The Okinawan was being restrained by the
samurai, who were ordered by the Japanese overlord
(depending on the story version) to throw him
into a vat of boiling oil while he watched.
To show his indifference to death and his disdain for his
executioner, the Okinawan grabbed the two samurai guards and dove
headfirst with them into the vat (with the design now representing
three heads swirling in oil). The story is very well known
throughout Okinawa, and the action is so highly regarded, that
the three tears symbol is incorporated into much of Okinawan life. Often, in
karate-do and especially Okinawan circles, this symbol is used as a crest for
The Okinawan Flag of today is different from the flag of the former
Island Kingdom. Okinawa was absorbed by Japan; thus it now flies the
Japanese flag. But the island kingdom also has its own Prefecture flag. The Okinawan
Prefecture flag is distinguished by three circles. The white ‘O’ inside a large red
disc on the white field represents the perfecture’s initial letter. The inner
small red disc stands for progress of Okinawa and the outer red circle represents
the sea surrounding Okinawa. Conversely, the large red circle may represent
the land of the rising sun (Japan) enclosing the Okinawa prefecture.
The Prefectural Symbol of
Okinawa was adopted as the official government symbol for Okinawa Prefecture in 1972 when
reversion from United States gave Okinawa back to the country of Japan.
Other interpretations have the large circle representing the ocean which plays such a
big part in Okinawa's identity
white circle symbolizes a peace-loving Okinawa and the inner circle symbolizes a
globally developing Okinawa. In short, the whole of the mark symbolizes "Ocean" "Peace"
and "Development" all primary concerns to the people of Okinawa.
A large group of Chinese families moved to Okinawa
particularly from the northern Fujian Province for the purpose of
cultural exchange around 1392, where they established a community and shared
their knowledge of a wide variety of Chinese arts and sciences, including
the martial arts such as Fujian White Crane, and Gangrou-quan
(Hard Soft Fist; pronounced "Gojuken" in Japanese).
Cranes have a lot of associated symbolism in asian culture, largely
involving long life, fidelity, wisdom, purity, prudence and vigiliance, peace
and happiness. There is a folk custom that folding 1000 origami cranes
brings good fortune that will aid a person particularly with recovery from illness
In Japan the Crane has long been an unoffical national symbol, it
has associations with princes of the imperial family as well as having
gained strong association as an emblem of peace. Post war Japan continues to have
a strong pacifist ethic, and to a fair degree martial arts in Japan since
1945 reflect this, tending to have a strong emphasis on ethics and a philosophy
It is thought that through that connection made by those early
Chinese families (and many believe it to
be true) masters such as
Matsumura Sokon may have encountered and even been influenced by White Crane Kung
Fu. Although those fighting
movements of long attacks and high kicking techniques are hard to identify within current
Okinawa karate forms which
more closely resemble southern Chinese low kicks and close-in style
fighting styles like those in Gangrou-quan.
Yin and Yang
The Yin Yang symbol is Chinese and dosen't
really fit in modern karate teaching but it is seen in the Okinawan tradition and
history. The symbol does not apply to
the fighting itself, it applies to the philosophy of the fighting
(and more so as a life philosophy),
where there is power there must also be softness, you must be
passive while moving into activeness, etc., it's a "balance" strategy.
Rarely are the theories of Yin and Yang applied other
than in Daoist (Tao) religious practice, but you could argue that
the theory exist in all martial
arts, even in Western Boxing, you shift between positions and
strategies, hard when you need to and soft when it's required. This
is the applied principle of the Yin-Yang.
Almost anything in nature can be classified as either Yin or Yang.
Yin represent darkness, inwardness, slow, soft, gentle, cool, etc.
Yang represents light, outwardness, fast, hard, aggressive, hot,
etc. I find the symbol steeped in way too much eastern
"universalism" philosophy that is really far too general for practical application in
my martial arts
It's said that by mixing the aspects of Yin Yang together, you can easily adapt
into any situation, which goes to show that most martial arts are far more complex than
a simple "hard or soft" or "this or that" and tend to
be a mix or deal more often with the "flow" of conflict. I find little use for this religious symbol in
my personal martial arts journey or in my style of teaching.