Traditional Karate: The Not So Traditional Fighting Art.
With military precision the karate-ka moved in unison across the dojo’s polished wooden floor, keeping pace to their sensei’s cadence. The sensei, a rotund, middle- aged man, watched the gi- clad figures execute kata with the unyielding crispness of a drill team. His experienced eye noting proper foot alignment, punches thrust from the hip and deep stances used for generating power. Nodding his head in approval he shouted “This is traditional karate, the way it was done in Japan. To deviate from its teachings, is to destroy it.”
Within the evolutionary cycle of hand- to- hand combat geography, time and belief systems give rise to a fighting art’s identity. This is a worldwide occurrence and the reason why most fighting arts are identified by their originating culture.
However, when a fighting art migrates to another society it becomes tailored by the new social order. And while such changes are considered innovative, they often spawn misconceptions about the fighting art’s native practice that impede the practitioner’s growth.
Unlike karate’s transmission to Japan, its introduction to the West was often by individuals who possessed elementary knowledge of the fighting art. And while their intentions were good, these individual’s lack of understanding often prevented them from making distinctions between Okinawan and Japanese karate, sport and combative styles of fighting, as well as literal and figurative interpretations of the kata.
From this confusion numerous misconceptions about karate evolved in the West. And despite evidence suggesting otherwise, these misconceptions are regularly passed from one generation of karate-ka to another in what is known as the spirit of tradition. The following examines three of these misconceptions and their effect on present day karate.
Kata, what good is it?
The practice of kata has been a source of contention within karate for many decades now. Some people believe it an archaic ritual whose time has passed, a belief justified by the widespread use of kata as an intricate dance, performed only for competition.
Although kata possesses esthetically appealing qualities, the ritual serves a greater purpose than fulfillment of artistic desires. Throughout history mankind has used prearranged training rituals to preserve and transmit martial knowledge from one generation to the next. Known as kata in Japanese and Okinawan karate, these rituals not only preserve combat proven strategies, but simultaneously allow fighters to practice them in a safe and efficient manner.
With the introduction of competitive based sparring during the 1930’s, karate was made into a long range sport devoid of grappling strategies and lethal techniques. Moreover, this development significantly altered the role of kata because with the rise of point sparring, tournament competition became the primary means of judging a karate-kas’ abilities, instead of one’s knowledge and execution of kata.
Tournament sparring is a rule dominated event which specifies that fighters can only punch and kick one another on predetermined areas of the body. Likewise, the contest is a distant affair in which two fighters move into striking range, exchange a barrage of techniques, and then disengage once a point has been scored.
Kata, however, preserves techniques intended for a violent, close quarter form of combat. As a result of this grappling, eye gouges, arm breaks, groin strikes and other techniques designed to inflict lethal damage are included in the ritual. Hence, tournament style fighting is designed for rule based competition, while kata is intended for no holds, close quarter combat. And while the two styles of fighting can be mutually supportive of one another, each differs greatly in the results it strives for.
Tournament fighting is not the only component of the karate world that distorts kata because traditionalists also contribute to this illusion. Today kata is set upon a pedestal much like some omnipotent god for all to admire, yet never to be touched. And when viewed primarily as a solo exercise, fledgling karate-ka will often perform kata religiously without understanding the ritual’s purpose.
Although a valuable solo exercise, prior to karate’s introduction to Japan, kata was viewed as a catalogue from which specific techniques were drawn, practiced and perfected by two fighters. This was done in conjunction with kakie, making the exercise a very free flowing, spontaneous affair that allowed two karate-ka to practice a single technique in various ways. Once the technique was perfected, it was replaced with another drawn from the kata. And, more importantly, if improvements could be made upon a certain technique it was recorded in the kata.
Traditionally kata was a living, breathing entity, serving as the backbone of karate, allowing fighters to develop skills, grow in their training and even transcend the kata. In fact, transcendence of kata was just as important as the ritual itself, which is the reason why so many variations of karate kata exist today. Kata are training tools, not collectable items and if an advanced karate knows only one or two kata, or else modifies existing kata, then this is in keeping with the spirit of karate. Most importantly martial prowess is not to be judged by the number of kata one knws, but by their skills.
Strength and Weight Training
Weight lifting decreases flexibility, reduces speed, and stunts the development of Ki. This mantra has been commonly heard among by karate-ka since the early 1950’s.
Our reluctance to engage in weight training is based largely on outdated information that was formulated before any scientific evidence was gathered on its performance enhancing capabilities. However, today with the benefits of weight training seen throughout amateur and professional sports, its value to the karate world can no longer be denied.
Hand- to- hand combat fought within the ring, in the street, or on the battlefield requires stamina, speed and strength. This is a reality understood by all fighters, no matter their heritage or time and place in history. Wrestlers and boxers in ancient Greece were noted for their well developed physiques gained from performing dead lifts, clean jerks and even bicep curls with heavy stones. Likewise, Roman gladiators used similar exercises to bolster their own physical skills.
Within China and Okinawa, strength training has long been recognized as a key ingredient in the making of a successful fighter. Chinese boxing manuals routinely illustrate strength and conditioning exercises using free weights and crude machinery. Both Choki Motobu and Chojun Miyagi were noted for their physical prowess, gained in part from strength training. And as early as 1958, weight training was used at the Kodokan to bolster Judo-kas’ skills. Donn Draeger’s seminal work, Judo Training Methods, first published in 1962, is a weight training manual written exclusively for martial artists. Scientific and detailed, the book is a comprehensive presentation of exercises and routines designed specifically to enhance the combat athletes’ skills. More importantly, the book’s message is as current today as it was fifty years ago.
How then did such a reluctant attitude towards strength training develop in the karate world? The answer lies with its transmission to the West, where kata and technique were freely taught, but their accompanying strength and conditioning exercises were often left on a distant shore.
Initially, karate is very a challenging exercise as one develops muscular skills through the practice of kata, technique and sparring. However, once perfected a law of diminishing returns occurs. The more skilled the karate-ka, the less physical effort is needed to perform technique because with skill comes refinement. Hence, the physical conditioning initially gained, diminishes with time. Therefore, to reduce this effect, strength and conditioning exercises should be routinely included in the karate-kas’ workouts.
Strength training is a very popular concept today, yet the differences between functional strenght training and body building should be noted. Body building is a sport that sculpts one’s physique by using specific exercises to develop isolated muscle groups. Strength training for the karate-ka however, is based upon the principle that the whole muscular system is greater than its individual parts.
Fighting requires use of the entire body to generate striking and grappling power. When punching the heavy bag power is initially generated at foot level then travels upward, through the hips, into the shoulders and out the arm. This requires complete muscular synergy, instead of the flexing of one individual body part.
Developing synergy requires exercises that work the body’s muscular groups simultaneously. Known as compound or power exercises deadlifts, squats, clean presses, and one arm dumbbell jerks develop overall body strength while simultaneously increasing anaerobic endurance. Two sessions, lasting forty five minutes to one hour each, performed every week, are sufficient enough to develop crisp, hard hitting strikes and overall endurance. Strength training is not a determent, but a performance enhancing exercise that should be included in the karate-ka’s training much the same as kata, self-defense drills and sparring are.
The Taboo of Cross Training
Kenwa Mabuni once wrote “There are no styles of karate-do, just varying interpretations of its principles.” (McCarthy, Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts Vol. 2, 33) While individual preference dictated karate’s practice on Okinawa, many who taught it in Japan realized that for karate to be accepted by Japanese society it would require a structured teaching format, one that promoted karate to the masses, yet which simultaneously diminished the fighting art’s eclectic nature. By 1931 this change was implemented and in 1933 Karate was recognized by the Butokukai. With this came the formation of karate ryu-ha or styles; the four earliest being Goju-ryu, Shotokan, Shito-ryu and Wado-ryu.
Sadly, the division of karate into differing camps hurt not only the fighting art, but those who practiced it. Division quells the free exchange of ideas and leaves karate-ka with a limited understanding of not only karate, but other fighting arts as well.
Although considered unthinkable by many today, cross training was an inherit part of early karate on Okinawa. Were it not for the exchange of ideas between fighters, Chojun Miyagi would have never developed the Hookiyu kata series, a result of his collaboration with Itosu Anko. Similarly, but on a grander scale, had there never been an exchange of martial knowledge between China and Okinawa, then the fighting art known as karate would not exist today.
Cross training is an inherit theme in traditional karate and has been throughout the fighting art’s history. Kenwa Mabuni practiced both Shuri-Te and Naha-Te. Otsuka Hindenori (Wado-Ryu) was skilled in classical jujutsu and Matsatatsu Oyama (Kyokushinkai) had extensive training in both Korean and Chinese fighting arts. These are just a few examples of many people who used an eclectic approach to develop their own style of karate.
While it is best to develop a basic proficiency in one style of karate before exploring others, cross training allows the karate-ka to experience similar combative themes expressed in different ways. Likewise, variations in kata bunkai can also be gained through cross training.
The karate-ka should not limit their explorations to just differing styles of karate. Cross training in other fighting arts such as Judo, Aikido, or Western style Boxing will present the karate-ka with different solutions to problems they frequently encounter in their own dojo. This in turn, yields the development of balanced strategies as fighters grow accustomed to using techniques and rhythms not normally found within their own style of karate. Cross training is not a break with tradition, rather it is tradition.
Today with the world wide popularity of Mixed Martial Arts contests and the continuing rise of hybrid fighting styles, it has become fashionable to diminish karate’s value. However, we are not the first, nor the last generation of karate-ka to encounter this trend.
A fighting art that has evolved with time, Karate has many faces but at its core is the fighter’s quest for knowledge, skill and self realization. To stem this quest is to kill the tradition because without the fighter, there is no karate. Therefore if traditional karate holds no present day value, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
About The Author
Michael Rosenbaum began his study of martial arts in 1966. In 1976, he began formal training in Okinawan Karate and since then has studied other styles of fighting. He is the author of “Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts.”
Bunkai –Jutsu by Iain Abernathy
Five Years, One Kata by Bill Burger
Okinawan Karate, Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques by Mark Bishop
Modern Budo and Bujutsu by Donn F. Draeger
Judo Training Methods by Donn F. Draeger
Karate-Do My Way of Life by Gichin Funakoshi
The Fighting Spirit of Japan by E.J. Harrison
The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju-Ryu by Morio Higaonna
The Way of Kata by Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder
The Weaponless Warriors by Richard Kim
Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts by Patrick McCarthy
Okinawan Kempo by Choki Motobu
Tales of Okinawan Karate-Do by Shoshin Nagamine
Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts by Michael Rosenbaum
The Fighting Arts: Their Evolution From Secret Societies To Modern Times By Michael Rosenbaum
Okinawan Goju-Ryu: The Fundamentals of Shorie-Kan Karate by Seikichi Toguchi.