Traditional Karate

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Traditional Karate - Such a Modern Concept

Andries Pruim | January 2020

What is Traditional?

The word “traditional” is bandied about so readily these days, with some taking a “high and mighty” attitude when the traditionalist criticizes the nontraditional elements of today’s martial artists. Oxford Dictionary defines “tradition” as: “A long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another"   .....   or for our reference, as it pertains to Martial Arts: “An artistic (or literary) method or style established by an artist (writer) or movement, and subsequently followed by others.” I feel that that the second definition is the pulpit the Traditionalists of today attempt to preach from.

While there is a still a separation between those who consider themselves traditionalists and those who have left behind the Japanese heritage from their teaching and training curriculums, none should consider themselves superior to the other as both have their strengths and well as limitations.

Japanese Martial Traditions leveraged

In this same time period, basically at the end of the 1800’s, Kendo was established in its current form and Karate started to develop into more than a backyard endeavor. With Kendo, most of the previous training for swordsmanship was conducted in small groups with one on one training over a span of several years. With the elimination of the Samurai class during the early part of the Meiji period and the growth of Japan as an international military power, some of the political elite felt that leveraging the romanticized spirit of the Samurai would allow the new generation of soldiers to have a noble past for inspirational purposes.

This included the way the students were taught Kendo as well as what was taught for the purpose of consolidating the various sword styles into a cohesive training curriculum. Together with Government intervention, Budo was “formalized” into the Dai Nippon Butokukai.

Dai Nippon Butoku Kai

As quoted from the www.dnbk.org website:   “...… in 1895, The Dai Nippon Butokukai (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society) was established in Kyoto Japan under the supporting authority of the national government and the endorsement of Meiji Emperor to solidify, promote, and standardize all martial disciplines and systems extant in Japan.” ….

At this same time, Karate started to expand in Okinawa and slowly formalized into more organized curriculums similar to what was occurring in Japan including the transition to teaching large groups of students rather than teaching one or two students as was the custom. Further evidence is being uncovered demonstrating that karate as it was known on Okinawa around the turn of the last century had little resemblance to what was taught prior to Karate being added to Okinawan School curriculum. In other words, the only “tradition” being taught was basic cultural norms and not the type/style of karate (or even how it was taught).

In this light, we can therefore trace the traditional “Start Point” if you want, at least for Kendo, to the turn of the 20th century, which in the history of Japan is not all that long ago. Yet the Kendo of today can only truly trace its history to this point in time, while karate itself is even younger.

Initiating Modern Martial Arts Traditions

The traditional Karate styles we see prevalent today have only existed for around a 100 years and each are hard pressed to say this is a tradition “not to be touched”. In fact, it was the transition of karate to Japan proper that initiated the development of the various “traditional” karate styles now in existence.

Even Gichin Funakoshi knew that he had to modify the karate he was taught to accommodate the “sign of the times” if he wished to successfully propagate Karate to the Japanese populous.

Even though Funakoshi sensei never “named” his karate, unlike his Okinawan compatriots, nevertheless Funakoshi’s students decided to name the karate they learned from him as “Shotokan”. It was around the same time period, namely the 1920’s and 1930’s when the other karate styles originated, mainly to get themselves properly registered with the Japanese Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. This included accepting the ranking system as well as the wearing of a uniform, which in Karate’s cases initially emulated the Judo Gi.

Even though we acknowledge that Funakoshi and others of his stature were innovators of Karate, there slowly developed a philosophy that certain elements of each Karate style were not to be “innovated” any further.  What is surprising is that this philosophy never really took root until Karate started becoming internationalized, especially to the North American market. When Karate started to become popularized in North America, primarily in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the cast of characters involved were unique and diverse to say the least.

While karate did evolve in the early part of the 20th century, into several separate “styles” (or Ryu), nevertheless the basic premise of the karate was similar in many aspects. This included most stances, strikes, kicks and in some cases Kata, but each with some unique aspects to the training which differentiated it from other styles. In a number of cases, unless you were an active participant in one of the styles (i.e.: Shotokan, Wado-ryu, Gojo-ryu, etc.) most of the differences would be negligible to the inexperienced spectator.

Karate Starts to Professionalize

What truly initiated the separation into “traditional” and “nontraditional” martial arts were “commercialization” of karate, which simply means that when people started to make money on karate, they do what they need to do to keep the money flowing in. The second main separation of karate into traditional and nontraditional was the introduction of “Sport Karate” which led to competitors who trained primarily for tournaments and shunned any “traditional” aspect to their karate training, including practicing kata or the wearing of the white Gi.

This eventually then led to separate competitions where the “Open” tournaments allowed all styles, including non-karate styles (e.g.: Tae Kwon Do and Kung-Fu/Wushu) to compete and the more “traditional” tournaments where only Japanese and Okinawan Karate styles were permitted.

Here is where the word “Traditional” started to become more focused towards how the style of karate was taught more so than what was being taught.

The “traditionalist” mainly concerned themselves with ensuring standard uniforms (primarily white GI’s) were worn and that certain Kata (forms) were performed with little modifications to these katas permitted. On the other hand, those karate schools which participated in more of the “Open” tournaments began to evolve into a variety of unique operations from small school fighting teams to schools that concentrate on the new version of competition kata known as “tricking”.

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While there are benefits to both variations, unfortunately the “traditionalists” try to maintain that they are the true “keepers” of the way and hold the higher moral ground in the Karate world. Unfortunately, when realizing that we are talking of times no longer than 100 years ago, when the karate we see today started to evolve, the word “traditional” has a bit of a hollow meaning.

It must be remembered that it was the “Open” concept that allowed for Karate and Martial Arts in general to evolve into variations including Kick Boxing and ultimately Mix Martial Arts (MMA). Without the inclusiveness and experimentation that the “Open” karate styles allowed for, a number of innovations to the martial arts may never have occurred, including new kata developments, expanding the use of weapons from simple farm implements to all varieties of hand to hand combat weaponry, not to mention the true commercialization of karate in general.

This was where a number of traditionalists started to criticize these Martial Artists/Business people for “selling out” their craft. There was a philosophy that true Karateka should never profit from what they were taught and the true way was through dedicated adherence to making yourself a better person in society and helping others to do the same. For some reason, remuneration for this effort was frown upon and it was thought that making Karate a career choice for financial gain was giving up the true way.

This is amusing as most of the early practitioners of Karate, especially in Okinawa, were of the gentry class, which means they came from families with sizable fortunes, allowing them the leisure time to train. Most of the population at that time would not be able to spare any time for such extensive study so to frown upon those trying to make Karate a life’s endeavor is somewhat “complex” to say the least.

Olympizing the Martial Arts

With many full time and very financially successful traditional schools now in existence, the traditionalists are now defining themselves more on what and how they teach rather than any commercialization hesitations. Again, this is a somewhat complex definition as with the on-going push to get Karate into the Olympics, the traditional styles have once again evolved into a more “generic” style of karate in order to gain acceptance by the Olympic committee.

In fact, organizations like the World Karate Federation and it’s National/Provincial counterparts (KarateCanada and KarateBC) have affiliated themselves with the National Coaching and Health Agencies which again has affected what and how the “traditional” styles of karate are taught. There is a document put out by KarateCanada known as the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) initiative which actually makes recommendations to move away from “styles” of karate and for competitive purposes, they should follow the LTAD program which is also used by most sports organizations.

All this puts the word “traditionalist” into a quandary as the “white Gi”, limited Kata, specific Kumite and Kihon routine “karate styles” are continuing to evolve into a “Olympizied” version that doesn’t look very similar to what was developed by Funakoshi Gichin and his compatriots. Nevertheless, even though there is a myriad of reasons why we can define traditionalists as simply a variation of what is being taught in today’s martial arts industry, including all the new/old eclectic styles, we should try to focus on the desire of the instruction, rather than what is being taught.

We should examine the philosophy behind what is being taught as well as the sincerity of how the karate (or martial art in general) is being taught. Even with Traditionalists, there has never been agreement on uniforms, kata nor proper kumite practice, but what they all have in common is a respect for what they were taught and the respect in how they treat those who follow them.

Traditionalists have very little timelines to defend their “nothing should be touched” mentality, yet some of today’s Karate Instructors who are considered the true traditionalists are actually innovators of today’s karate, or even other Budo. For example, Atarashii Naginata is considered a traditional Budo and the way it’s taught, together with the techniques being taught are considered sacrosanct by most of the Naginata leadership, yet the Budo itself was not “organized” until 1955 with all previous versions being offshoots of Kendo practice.

Traditional is a Mind Set

One of the leading proponents of Karate, the Kanazawa Hirozaku Soke and one of the most talented instructors of Naginata, Kimura Yasuko Soke, both felt that their Budo would be enhanced by allowing innovation to be included within their Budo’s training curriculum. Whether this innovation was listening and learning from Non-Japanese “experts” or simply trying to be more inclusive in the training and propagating of the Budo itself.

It is therefore best to qualify Traditionalists as those who have their Budo’s best interest in mind and prefers to leverage some of the "best practices” (to use business vernacular) of what is more aptly described as “Classic Karate” but only in the use of the Uniform/Gi, Kata’s and Basics. You will seldom find similar training techniques and in a lot of cases the execution of the techniques is still different within the same style. Yet the atmosphere within the school is respectful, energetic, forward looking and ultimately fun!

If you are training at one of these “traditional” schools working bi-weekly out of a community center or out of local school gym or even if you train in a full time professionally run business/school (totally equipped with all type of training tools), just remember that as long as the learnings you obtain from your experience is fulfilling, educational, effective in getting into better shape as well as enhancing your overall outlook on life, then you can say you’re a training at a traditional school.

Traditional is some endeavor we “do” in such a noble way that we truly wish to pass on this excellence to others. Remember the word we call our teachers in Karate is “Sensei” which simply means “those that have gone before us”. No better nor worse, just experienced. Learn and Enjoy your Budo tradition, whatever you make it out to be.