Karate sensei Garry Parker was born in Columbus, Georgia, and began training in Kodokan Judo in high school. After graduation, he enlisted in the United States Air Force, and was stationed at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. Shortly after arrival in Okinawa, Parker enrolled in the Hamagawa Dojo, where he learned under the watchful eye of Takamiyagi Hiroshi, Hanshi. After separation from the Air Force, he was granted a visa and continued to live and train in Okinawa until 1996, when he moved back to Georgia. Parker received authorization to teach Goshukan-ryu in America, and opened the first branch Okinawa Goshukan-ryu Dojo outside of Okinawa in 1999.
Garry Parker is the author of the new book, Chanpuru: Reflections and Lessons from the Dojo (Tambuli Media 2015), in which he shares his experience, trials, and tribulations as an American abroad learning a foreign cultural art and making his way from outsider to trusted teacher. We caught up with Garry during his busy Summer schedule to conduct this informal Q&A.
Thinking back to the first day you stepped in Okinawa, and wanted to learn karate, what were your feelings?
Quite honestly, I was excited to be somewhere warm and tropical! I had just completed a 12 month assignment to Osan Air Base, Korea and was still shaking off the cold weather when I stepped into the Naha Airport. Having (primarily) practiced Judo prior to arriving on Okinawa, I was more interested in continuing Judo practice, and didn’t give very much thought to Karate. It wasn’t until I had watched a couple of demonstrations that I became intrigued by Okinawan Karate, and shortly after, I received an invitation to train at a Karate Dojo. My initial feelings when I finally stepped into the dojo for the first time were a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation; I was ready to learn something new… ready to challenge myself, but the sight of karate men pounding the makiwara, kicking the heavy bag, and the tire, and beating their arms and legs on each other, was quite a shocking sight for a Judo student.
How did it feel, after having trained in a US dojo, to be invited into an Okinawan dojo?
As I mentioned, I had only experienced Judo, so naturally I searched for a place that taught Judo; I had little luck finding someone willing to teach me, and was soon invited to try Uechi-Ryu by Mr. Naka – one of the Okinawan civilians that worked in our squadron. One of the aspects that drew me to Okinawan Karate was the no frills method of training to which I was already accustomed. When I trained in America, our Judo dojo was an all-purpose room on the 3rd floor of the YMCA in Columbus, GA. This old building was hot in the summer, drafty in the winter, and we trained hard and sweated buckets no matter the weather. When I walked into the first Uechi-Ryu dojo, and later the Hamagawa Dojo of Takamiyagi Sensei, I got the same vibe; that is, everyone there was working hard, sweat was pooling on the hardwood floors, and not one single student showed the slightest ego or pretense.
I suppose that my experience is not the average experience, as I have met many people over the years that have described both of my training experiences as ‘old school’. To me, it was just normal. It was what I expected, and what I have come to associate with true training methods. The air conditioned modern schools and dojo’ are nice, and of course, they are comfortable for the parents, but the air conditioned viewing areas with flat screen televisions, juice bars, and pro shops, are superfluous, and have no direct impact on the training.
What are the main areas of difference between training in an American dojo and an Okinawan dojo?
In America, my Judo Sensei was German; he was strict and he taught with little patience for horseplay or fun in the dojo; No one under 12 was accepted, so there really wasn’t an issue of kids running around. The practice consisted of bowing in, ukemi (falling and rolling) practice, then we split into groups according to rank and age, and practiced accordingly. That was it. In Okinawa, we all bowed in, warmed up together, and practiced the first few kata together before beginning independent practice. Sensei would rotate and spend time with each student or group of students, while much of the instruction was conducted by the Senpai (senior black belt students). In Okinawa, we trained at our pace, according to our individual goals. Some wanted to practice kata, while others wanted to focus more on defense and personal protection.
Some of the kids were there because they had to choose between baseball, kendo, or karate, so it was just another activity for them. Those who showed sincerity in training, both children and adults, received additional instruction and extra attention from Sensei. Everyone can train, and everyone can gain something from consistent practice, but only those who sincerely dedicate themselves will be introduced to the finer details of the arts. There is an unspoken ‘inner circle’ in Okinawan Karate; the only entrance is by gaining the trust and respect of one’s Sensei, through dedication, loyalty, and humility.
How would you describe the character and teaching method of Takamiyagi sensei?
Takamiyagi Sensei has been my teacher now for 25 years; in that time, I have learned the proper way a martial artist should conduct himself, in and out of the dojo, simply by watching his example. His character in a nutshell is this: He is driven by the desire to be just a little better than yesterday, that is, he is constantly training, researching, and refining his methods to improve his art, not for himself, but for the next generation of Goshukan-Ryu practitioners and teachers. He expects a lot, but he gives even more. Sensei is unrelenting in his pursuit of ensuring that we, his disciples, are given all the information that we can handle, and then he ensures that we continue our pursuit to perfect the methods he has taught us. He is passionate about his art, his family, his students, and his life; He loves to have fun and share his native culture with anyone that is sincere and shows a genuine interest. I suppose his character and teaching methods blend together quite well, in that the same principles are used for both. Hard but fair. Honest, giving, and sharing. Honor is everything, dedication and loyalty are expected, and trust must be earned.
What are the core principles of the Goshukan-ryu?
The core principles defined by Takamiyagi Sensei, are to preserve, teach, and share the unchanged martial arts of both Dento (Classical) Shuri-Te Karate of Okinawa, and Go So Ken (Wuzhuquan) as he was taught. In a generation where Okinawan karate is beginning to gain popularity once again, it is paramount to maintain the old traditions of training for the sake of self-improvement, health, longevity, and practical and proven protection skills. While others embrace the newer model of Taiso (physical exercise) Karate and forget about the deeper esoteric meanings of the older methods passed down, we cannot fall victim to such an easy and shallow method of training. Karate practice is a life-long pursuit, and should be viewed as a means to constantly challenge and improve the body, mind, and character of the practitioner well into old age.
How did Takamiyagi sensei come to combine Wuzuquan (Ngo Cho Kun) and Shuri-Te into a new method?
I would not classify Goshukan-Ryu as a new method; instead, it can be more accurately described as the partnership of two very old and proven methods that are taught side by side under the umbrella of one name. Sensei has always been adamant about this; in fact, he constantly reminds me to keep the two art forms separate, keep the principles and the techniques separate, and to pass it on correctly to my own students in that manner.
As a tireless researcher, Takamiyagi Sensei has always been intrigued by the influence of Southern Chinese arts as the roots of Okinawan Karate; as this is a topic for his upcoming biography. I won’t go into detail, but will say that when he was given the opportunity to study Wuzuquan, he grasped that opportunity whole-heartedly, and was thoroughly impressed to such an extent, that he was inspired to bring these old methods to Okinawa. Although the methods of Wuzuquan more closely resemble the methods of Naha-Te systems, the differences in Wuzuquan and Shuri-Te are quite complimentary. One key point that must be mentioned is this: While other historical karate masters have blended the Fujian arts with Okinawa Te to create new styles and methods, Takamiyagi Sensei is adamant about teaching both Shuri-Te and Wuzuquan side by side, as separate and unblended styles.
I know from my own travel and training that there are some things that transpire—lessons or locations—that for some reason become more important or memorable than others. Can you tell us about the importance of the sea wall for you?
Ah, yes! What a wonderful memory; I love to share this, and am happy that you asked! The Sunabe sea wall was literally a stone’s throw from the front door of the Hamagawa Dojo; I often hung out there after class in the evenings to take in the evening breeze coming off the East China Sea, as I relaxed and watched the waves under the moonlight. I was never alone in this pursuit, as the Sunabe Sea Wall was, and is, an extremely popular spot for Okinawans and foreigners alike. For several years, I spent evenings there, winding down after class, and sometimes with friends on the weekends. After I separated from the U.S. Air Force, the Sea Wall became something entirely different for me. On Saturday afternoons, Takamiyagi Sensei and I would walk there from the dojo, and we would talk, sometimes for 10 minutes before having lunch at Hamaya Soba, sometimes for an hour or two. I learned different lessons sitting on that Sea Wall with Takamiyagi Sensei, but those lessons were just as valuable, and necessary for my complete development, as the physical lessons learned in the dojo. I learned history, I learned philosophy, and I listened to old tales, and advice about everyday life; most of all, I learned that I had earned the trust of my Sensei, and I learned how much he truly cared.
In your book Chanpuru, you have section called “Not your black belt,” about your testing for shodan. Can you tell us about the significance of 1) that test for you, personally, and 2) the deeper meaning of the black belt “not being yours”?
While we know that the Sho-dan (Black Belt) is really the beginning of serious learning, to me, it was unattainable; that is, I felt that I didn’t have what it takes to earn my own, and I was perfectly content with going to the dojo, practicing, learning, and making small increments of progress. You see, I was never particularly athletic or physically gifted as a teen or a young man; everything I accomplished, every small stride forward, took a tremendous amount of work. I trained every day for hours at a time, not because I was an enthusiastic, hard-core martial arts student, but because it literally took me twice as long as the average practitioner to grasp even some of the most basic concepts. When Takamiyagi Sensei informed me that I would be testing for black belt, I initially thought he was testing me psychologically, or even joking at my expense. He assured me that he was serious, and was quite offended when I politely declined to test (which I thought was the proper response, given my mistaken opinion of why he mentioned testing).
After the testing was over, and I was promoted, I felt proud, I felt accomplished, but I still felt extremely unqualified. My senpai (dojo Senior) congratulated me, and mentioned that Sensei was proud to have a new black belt student. The entire time I was testing, I didn’t think about Sensei or his gift to me… that is, sharing his knowledge. In fact, I was quite selfish, and look back on that aspect with shame. The black belt goes around the waist of the student, who then proudly wears it, and works even harder to assure Sensei that he made the right decision by allowing the student to test. In fact, the black belt is for the Sensei; it’s a reminder, a badge, a trophy, that Sensei was actually able to transmit his knowledge to the student, and in turn, gain a new ambassador for the dojo, and the style.
Tell us about your book, Chanpuru, and how it shares the art via three parts, or perspectives.
Honestly, it didn’t start out that way; the format changed several times over the 10 plus years (off and on) that I worked on the manuscript. It wasn’t until after Takamiyagi Sensei’s first visit to the United States in 2014, that I changed the format of the book to three parts. I realize that it’s an uncommon format, which is partial biography, part advice and insight, and part tribute. The first section, titled “Reflections,” is a collection of memories and personal experiences, mostly outside the dojo. I wanted to share with my readers the other side of Okinawa that is rarely experienced by foreigners living in Okinawa, unless they immerse themselves in the culture. Understanding the Okinawan culture and their way of life, gives deeper understanding to the underlying principles of practicing Okinawan Karate in Okinawa.
The second section, titled “Lessons,” is just that: Lessons that I’ve learned during my first three decades of martial arts practice. Much of the content is centered on proper character development, behavior, and attitude, sprinkled with life lessons, and the responsibility of a martial artist and a warrior. The third and final section is dedicated to my teacher, because no matter where we go or what we achieve in life, it is imperative that we always honor the ones that made it possible for us to get there.
You built your own dojo and created a program based on traditional karate and wuzuquan. Can you tell us about it, and what students focus on and how training is progressed with the walls?
When I was given authorization to teach and open a Goshukan-Ryu branch dojo in the USA in 1999, I was unsure about how to teach, so I simply mimicked the protocol and used the same curriculum that I had been taught by my teacher in Okinawa, which is Goshukan-Ryu. As is often the case, my personal goals as well as the needs of the students had a large impact on the initial direction of my personal teaching methods. Because the majority of my early students were law enforcement officers, federal agents, US Army Infantrymen, Rangers, and private security contractors, the emphasis of Shuri-Te’s Tuidi (joint manipulation / breaking / dislocation) and effective low kicks, along with wuzuquan’s evasive and redirecting techniques, as well as heavier concentration of Iron Shirt and Iron limb training methods were implemented more heavily in the daily training methods. As the years passed, I gained more experience as a teacher, and learned to compartmentalize more effectively with different groups of students and their corresponding individual goals; based on that experience, I was able to codify a separate tactics program from our traditional curriculum of Goshukan-Ryu.
One thing that I’ve learned as a teacher, is that I can’t assume anything about any student when they first walk in the door. Those that seem serious will drop out, and those that are timid will often shine and become the most dedicated student. There is no cookie-cutter approach to teaching for me. I have a curriculum and a syllabus to which each student must adhere; however, it is imperative to listen to each student’s individual training goals, and to help guide them in the right direction.