Traditions and Karate


In this day and age there is a great deal of Karate on offer to potential students.  In different countries and different counties/states there are perhaps greater concentrations of particular styles, and some have gained a greater following than others, but they  all have a lineage (even if it is through a differently named style) of teachers that can be traced back to a fairly small number of individual teachers in the mid to late C19 on Okinawa.

If we consider the many styles that have come from these individuals – what a heritage they have left us.  Is it possible to count all the styles and be sure you do in fact have them all?  Then there are styles within styles or different associations of the same style – still using the same ‘brand name’ but with subtle differences and often their own independent grading systems.

Today there are many pressures on karate teachers that may not have existed for those men in Okinawa so many years ago.  A modern  instructor may not necessarily be running a club to provide himself or his association income, but he/she still has to bring in enough students to cover the hall rental if there is to be any training at all.    Whether we like it or not, each club is a business to a certain degree, even if its aims are solely charitable.  Prospective students are faced with far greater choice than ever before between different  dojos and other systems, and the amount of information available to them is at once both helpful and confusing.  Did the question as to ‘what’ karate is for – self defence, personal development, fitness, flexibility and so forth – vex students and teachers then as much as it does now in our ‘on demand’ and ‘alternative service’ world?  In 1908 Anko Itosu wrote

You must decide if karate is for your health or to aid your duty.

but I wonder how many people who have trained in karate have truly established what they are training for, and in what order of priority.

A natural response to this competitive world has been for many instructors to adopt terms to describe the way ‘they’ practise karate as opposed to other styles.  Over the years I have seen terms such as ‘practical’, ‘modern’, ‘classical’, ‘sport’, ‘full contact’ and ‘traditional’ used as a means of simplifying core principles and methods and creating distance with competitors.  The question I want to raise here is – what is traditional karate?

 It seems such a simple question.  I wonder how many of you immediately pictured a shiny wooden floor and beautiful plain white karate suits?  Tatami mats anyone?  Makiwara and traditional strengthening tools?  A shrine?  Did you think of a teacher with just one or two students, or a nice big class moving as one to the Sensei’s shout?    Was there linework or techniques practiced by number in your mental picture? Were the commands in Japanese?  Did the students spar?  Did your mind go to Okinawa, Japan, or the tales of how Karate was in your country when the pioneering instructors introduced it?

I don’t wish to sound glib, but the thing about tradition is that once you’ve done something more than once – it can be classed as tradition.  You may want to describe your precise replication of the way your teacher taught you in ‘1970’ as the definitive tradition for your style – but what would you say if someone observing it said “well actually he was quite a modernist and this is how they did it where he came from and how it’s still done there.”  Is that just as traditional or more traditional?

What I would like to raise here is that we could say that there is more to traditional karate than physical actions, language, drills or even kata – there is intent.  What was the intent of those men who sought out other teachers and trained and passed on their knowledge?  There is no way that you can be Sokon Matsumura, Anko Azato, Anko Itosu, Kokan Oyadomori, Kanryo Higaonna or Chotoku Kyan: you cannot train precisely the way they did or replicate their experiences – but you can aim for the same thing they did.  Isn’t that traditional?

Must there be Japanese in a traditional karate class?  The Japanese use Japanese because it is their native language.  When a Japanese announces the name of a Kata or technique they are thus experiencing something quite different from a non-Japanese speaking occidental doing the same – even if you have a good translation in mind.  The use of the Japanese language can lead to confusion over technique (such as translating the word Uke as ‘block’ instead of something more appropriate like ‘receiver’), particularly when discussing items with those practising Chinese or Korean styles.  English, on the other hand is a great leveller and promoter of accurate communication between English speaking practitioners of an art.  “But it’s traditional to use Japanese!” many might cry.  Is it?  I don’t think so.  Karate has only been the ‘preserve’ of the Japanese since the second decade of the 20th century – not even 100 years.  For the second half of that century it has been practiced by non-Japanese speaking individuals across the world, in fact there are more non Japanese speaking Karateka than native speaking trainees.  If we choose to look at the preceding 100 years, from the time period where most of the Kata that Karateka practice were developed, we find that Karate was Okinawan and Chinese, not Japanese.  In how many Okinawan dojos were Karateka using the local Okinawan dialect and pronunciation  rather than Japanese?  These trainees used the language they spoke – they didn’t keep the Chinese names for Kata or techniques, they changed them to their mother tongue.  Even the name Karate is fairly modern.  How many traditional schools translate this as (and use the Kanji for) the modern ‘Empty hand’ instead of the older ‘China hand’?  According to tradition Anko Itosu remodelled (or created) and renamed the Channan kata ‘Pinan’ to make it easier to pronounce.  If we wish to follow tradition then we could use our native tongue for Kata names and technique names to ensure an accurate transmission of ideas and knowledge rather than mimicking the Japanese.  I’ve had fewer problems using the term ‘ball of foot roundhouse kick’ than ‘Maewashi geri’ when discussing techniques or sharing information online, but someone who only talks ‘karate’ with karateka might find the Japanese term more widely accepted.

Is a Gi a symbol of traditional karate?  It is a useful hard wearing garment and students do tend to like uniformity – it ‘gets them in the mood’.  When combined with a coloured belt system It is also convenient for displaying rank – which helps the teacher in mixed ability classes.  It is essentially the ‘underwear’ of traditional dress from an age and culture where people did not have specialist sport/training clothing.  The idea was to wear something that came close to everyday dress but allowed you to move and it didn’t matter if it got dirty.  The Gi and belt are symbols of the Japanization of Karate, but Karate predates them.  If you put on a tracksuit and sweatshirt you are adhering to some principles behind the adoption of the Gi, if you all wear the same tracksuit or t shirts (think of MMA clubs with brand loyalty to a particular logo, or indeed their own club logo) then you are following the same ‘club uniform and group identity’ principles that underwrote the beginning of the modern karate uniform.

Let us consider spiritual teaching.  This is a very blurry aspect of martial arts practise.  The study of the Karate has, due in no small part to its Chinese background, long been linked with the teaching of self-control.  Many of the praised mental values of the martial arts are simply facets of the oriental background culture, some of which while uncommon in the West today would have been part and parcel of pre mid-twentieth century English society.  The merging of these teachings as part of the Japanese pursuit of Do, ‘way of the empty hand’ rather than ‘China hand fighting system’, is again a relatively modern phenomenon.    I do believe in endeavouring to impart through the medium of martial arts training the qualities of humility, respect, self-discipline, and the ability to keep a calm and level mind.  The question that springs to my mind is not so much whether their teaching is designed to produce ‘better’ people so much as to produce people less likely to get into fights – the first and most important stage of any real self-protection programme.  I do not feel that the teaching of these aspects can be helped at all in any way by using a foreign language.  Having taught in schools, dojos, university tutorials and in the military I would say that communication is one of the most important elements of teaching – I cannot see as many benefits in using Japanese terms instead of appropriate English translations.

What about training equipment?  The Makiwara is an interesting training tool.  I had one between 1994 – 2004 when I decided I couldn’t be bothered to dig up the 7 foot pole for yet another move.  When you think of what used to be available in Okinawa – it is very clever: it provides resistance – but not so much to damage the joints, provides solo target training and bone/skin conditioning.  You can use a Makiwara for more than just punching – but it is limited compared to a bag, or a bytonic bob, or a partner with a good shield, thai pads or focus mitts.  I am certain that if those training tools were widely available in the mid to late C19 and of comparable price and quality  then they would have been used and recognised as better.  The various strength tools that come from China, Okinawa and Japan also show ingenuity – but they are also an example of doing the best you can with the resources available.  There are better ways to work now and we would be in keeping with tradition to use them.   Would you say that someone isn’t traditional because they use focus mitts or punch bags?  Would you  say that people are not traditional because they don’t use Makiwara?  It is the development of power, stability and accuracy through striking a target that is traditional – not the target used.   Few people would choose straw tatami over modern easily cleanable purposely designed martial arts mats.

A subject that is quite close to my heart these days is that of armour and physical contact.  I accept that in karate it is difficult to safely make contact – that is par for the course and the curse of the percussive element of our art.  Some styles discourage paired work as too dangerous, others practice it now but with ‘no contact’, others still work full contact to limited areas.  Some say that in Shotokan sparring is non traditional because Funakoshi disagreed with it, though Funakoshi himself was interested in the possibility of armoured karate.  I’m not aware of evidence that shows  his teachers disagreed with it and in this instance a personal preference seems to have started a short lived tradition.  If you look at this picture of Okinawan karateka Kenwa Mabuni about to do paired work you can see that he is trying the best armour he could piece  together to enable him to make his paired practise as ‘real’ as safely possible.


Doesn’t the picture of the students in Spartan Training Gear show the same intent?  We are lucky that we have much better gear to allow us to use contact safely.  For many years I rejected the use of armour because of the limitations on movement that I perceived it to have, and the areas of the body still left unprotected, but there is armour available now that protects the majority of the body and allows free movement.  As a result of this progression in PPE I use armour regularly depending on the levels of contact within my classes, and those that have followed some of my videos on the DART youtube channel will know that we have used it to good effect in multiple person self protection Scenario Training.

Another element of training that I personally find interesting is the predominance of line work.  I trained in a ‘traditional’ Shotokan school for over a decade and found that this form of training accounted for well over a third of all training time (the other elements were pre-arranged sparring and Kata practice.  The parrot-fashion  line work that forms so much of modern Karate was a method engineered for the huge University classes of the early C20  onwards (although it is possible that this method may have first come about when Karate was introduced to Okinawan schools by Anko Itosu in 1910).    It has strengths as a training method but It is hardly any more traditional than the  Sport Karate championed by Nakayama (in Shotokan).

Kata.  Kata is a very important part of tradition.  Kata is so important that many karate styles make their students learn it for no obvious reason than to have learnt it.  Does that interpretation of much of modern kata practise shock you?  Are you one of the lucky trainees who spends most of their Kata practise actually applying the moves against a partner?  Actually doing something with the kata?  When I think of all those anecdotes of the ‘master’ who knew only one Kata or the person who spent five years learning one Kata, I wonder to myself – how much time did they spend practising it solo and how much time did they spend  working it paired?  When they did practise it solo, did they do it the same way and same speed over and over, or did they vary the speed and movements many times according to what they were visualising as the application?  What is more important – the application and intent of the moves or the rehearsal of the moves?  When books and videos were hard to come by, solo kata practise as a teaching tool made sense.  It makes less sense now because we can transmit that knowledge in different ways.  That is not to say that the lessons and techniques contained in Kata are not still important or useful.  My only question is this – shouldn’t we always strive to give the student the best method (for them) possible to help them train and remember their drills?  Isn’t the Bunkai and Oyo ultimately more important than the solo Kata?  Wasn’t that what it was all about?  Isn’t that what it’s for?

Let us take this train of thought a stage further.  If the Kata represent a repertoire of combat principles and techniques, and we drill those techniques and teach those principles, but never actually spend any time training away from the teacher or the class – do we still need the Kata?  The Kata isn’t going to die out – we are still using all its movements and they are all stored together in books and films.  If the solo form is simply a mnemonic, and you are practising the subject of the mnemonic, do you need to learn the mnemonic if you are never going to train alone?  What is its use if you are never going to use it?    Is the tradition of how we remember techniques more important than the techniques themselves?  Didn’t the techniques come before the Kata?  If the movements predate the Kata then isn’t the Kata just a learning tool – it may be traditional to do it, but it is equally traditional to use the techniques.  By this logic you could still be traditional without doing any Kata at all.  That may be too much of a jump for many people, but some Karate styles have found their method of practice so distanced by their current pedagogy from their ‘original’ kata that they have created their own that reflect their training drills.  It’s quite likely that this practise is one of the reasons why we have not only so many different forms today, but so many variations between styles on the same forms.

If a Karate style was recognized as having been  created in 1890 there are few who would not describe its modern practitioners as ‘traditional’.  What about if it was created in 1920?  1950?  1980?  2013?   There was  a precedent of students cross-training and forming their own styles after 10 years of training  just as there now  is a tradition of students imitating their teachers and never progressing further other than biomechanical efficiency or passing on personal study.  The latter case is unfortunately typical of the more shallow nature of much of modern Karate, the result of the Jitsu (practical fighting)  teaching being dropped in favour of sport and moving Zen emphases – the real martial element becoming superficial at best.  Although the number of students in Karate has increased the number of serious innovators seems to have remained relatively constant – partly due to the pressure of the ‘market brands’ and partly due to the fact that few can dedicate enough concentrated time to the furtherance of their art.  If we look at three of the foremost figures in the history of my own lineage of ‘modern’ karate, Sokon Matsumura, Anko Itosu and Gichin Funakoshi it can be seen that:

all three of them cross trained,

all three of them set up their own schools,

all three of them made alterations to Kata,

all three of them had students who followed in their footsteps and created their own styles,

none of them had what we would recognize as Dan grades awarded in their own styles from masters in their own styles.

It is odd therefore to condemn students who cross-train, study hard and develop their own integrated method of training with its own philosophy, or to claim that they are not ‘traditional’. Like their predecessors they are living in the present.  A new system of Karate can still be traditional – in fact depending upon the methods and outlook of its instructors it could be more traditional than its ‘ancestor’.

As students and teachers we develop.  We learn new things and gain new insights.  There is so much more information available to us in the realm  of sports science and human physiology.  So much more available to us on the subject of war, crime and psychology.  There are so many good teachers of other martial arts that we can learn from.  Why is cross training frowned upon?  It is traditional.  Cross training can bring new ideas and changes and of course these can lead to changes in kata and training methods.  If you look back to the C19 you can see that happening then.  I would not support change for the sake of change, but I would not oppose change as a result of new insights.  If there was no change and no growth we would not have such a rich Karate heritage or such diversity today.

Consider the training methods at your own dojo and return once more to the question of the nature of tradition.  You may be fortunate enough to work on a nice sprung wooden floor, the club may have many knowledgeable and skilled dan grades and teachers.  The spirit of the club may be high and the uniforms pristine (at the start of each training session anyway).  All these things represent elements of particular Karate traditions.  But I ask this – what is the intent behind your training?  Is that traditional?  Does your teacher seek what the karateka before him sought?  Do you?

If you were to walk into one of my normal lessons you would hear no Japanese.  You would see no lines of white suits.  If you see our solo form work then you’ll see it put into paired practise move for move.  You would see the best body armour I can buy being used and evidence of up to date research in physiology and psychology.  You would see plenty of work involving focus mitts and kick shields.  You might recognise movements from your kata, but you would see them in action.  I will quite happily don a Gi to teach in your dojo, but it’s not suitable for mine (not least because body armour doesn’t fit over it very well).  Through all of this I see myself as a very traditional Karateka: I am trying to  provide the best self-protection teaching and training I can based upon the culture I am operating in, aimed for the culture and time that my  students are living in, using all the facilities available to me – and that brings a tremendous peace of mind.  That is traditional karate.

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