Sunday, February 06, 2005

February 6, 2005 - What is "Traditional" Karate?

[Originally posted on]

I always have mixed feelings when I hear the word traditional in conjunction with karate.

There is the respect I have for many traditional training methods, such as kata. There is also just the sense of, well, tradition, that evokes certain notions in the mind. I don't mean the tradition of hanging up stockings over the fireplace during the Christmas season, or hiding eggs so that your children have to earn their breakfast for a change by finding them on Easter morning, but you all know what I do mean. Traditional values like respect, humility and self-control.

Further still, I still use the word "traditional" to describe what I do, mainly because of the perspective and the general idea that it purveys to who my audience is. It certainly denotes to the reader that I do not do more "reality-based martial arts" or "forge myself in the furnace of the ring." Depending on your viewpoint, it may also suggest I don't "waste my time with sport karate." Whatever you view it as, the word "traditional" is convenient in discussion.

And then, there's the part of me that wants to jump up and down with a bullhorn and a banner, announcing that as it relates to karate, very little of what most people see as "traditional" is, in fact, traditional at all.

Now, now, put away the ropes and the torches (and you with the pitchfork, let's just say it was meant to stick into hay, not bored writers on internet forums).

There have been countless posts, both by me and others, pointing out how relatively new the dan/kyu and belt system is in traditional martial arts. About how in the oft-quoted "old days", people trained in what basically amounted in a loin cloth and belts were made to hold your gi closed (no, not hold your pants up, do you ever think of the physics of that? If people used obi to hold their pants up, there'd be a lot more hanging in the breeze than grandma's freshly washed laundry). There have also been a few posts, quite a bit of them mine, that address the extremely recent nature of the solidification of styles (the ryu system) on Okinawa.

I haven't seen too many posts on what strikes at the issue here. I've hinted, cajoled and directly stated it from time to time. I have also seen others post something along those lines as well, but not very often.

Unfortunately, what I do see is a rather large misconception on what "traditional karate" actually is and what it is we do. I think the largest part of this is confusing what is "traditional karate" and what is "traditional behavior patterns of Confucian-influenced societies."

The bowing and the respect paid to the sensei and superiors, the sense of group unity, the notion of the transmission of certain practices, these are obviously not exclusive to karate. Nor are the values of being a "team player", humility and self-control. You can find as much in Japan on the Hanshin Tigers baseball team or the Thursday Evening Ladies' Ikebana (flower arranging) Club. These are people that have (although with much less emphasis nowadays) a ceremony dedicated to drinking tea, for heavens sake. My perhaps flippant treatment of this is simply to help put things in perspective.

The Japanese response to Okinawan karate's introduction to the mainstream (first half of the 20th century) was quite condescending. They viewed it as incomplete. Whatever its combative capabilities, there was no established curriculum, no concerted effort towards the indoctrination of spiritual and self well-being. They probably didn't know which they thought was worse, the lack of an established ryu system or the archaic teaching methods that didn't necessarily lend itself to being taught to large masses. This ushered in a large host of changes into karate. The wearing of gi. The dan/kyu system. The creation of established ryu that taught one person's method of doing things. The perception that training in more than one ryu as being disloyal, undedicated and unscrupulous. Kata became more rigid, more formalized, more symmetrical in orientation, whether that meant in pattern or body structure. Many people did go about merely copying the many moves perfectly, without knowing the deeper meaning behind them. Rigid adherence to a "count" totally disrupted the timing of the kata, and was more of a tool for teaching the kata than for learning it.

But that wasn't always the case. If anything, in traditional Okinawan karate, at least, and I'm sure the same goes for true traditional Chinese boxing, combative training was always tailored towards the individual. Sure, they were given certain drills and things to do, but everyone had their own way of doing them. You look at all the karate masters on Okinawa and what did they do? They didn't obstinately learn just one thing. They traveled all over Okinawa, learning different ways of doing things. Maybe one person was famous for his bo techniques. They went to his place and trained. Another was perhaps famous for kicking, and one for punching. Odds are, they're probably friends and maybe traded students with each other. They traveled to "mainland" Japan, China, and Taiwan. They took things they liked and discarded things they didn't like.

So as far as counting in Japanese and using Japanese terms (that's only because they spoke Japanese...of course, the Okinawans spoke Okinawan), bowing, wearing gi, the belt system, the ryu "style" system, all of that isn't exactly what truly makes up traditional karate. So, what is?

Kata. In my mind, that is one of the few things truly traditional in "traditional karate" in terms of what has been part of the training for over 105 years.

I could perhaps continue my discursive dissent with the widely held views of many people. However, I will limit it to a more pertinent topic, which to put it elegantly, really gets my goat.

I have said this before, and so have others, to their credit. Most of the disparaging of traditional karate is in my mind, the product of Bruce Lee's denigration of what he viewed as uncritical copying of technique to create mindless automotons that had nary a free thought of their own, let alone the ability to win a fight.

But I'll let you in on a deep secret. Bruce Lee and I, we really think alike. Me, the defender of "traditional karate" and one who, to say the least, did not hold it in high regard, have the same view.

Unfortunately, what I think Bruce Lee missed is the generalizations he made only apply if you are guilty of what he said never to do: Be obssessed with techniques. But, I'll stop picking on Bruce Lee. He was a good fighter. In my opinion, not great and certainly not the greatest, but he did a lot for the martial arts community in terms of popularity. He definitely had a work ethic that could probably somehow fuel the electricity of a small rural town during winter. And like I said, he and I think alike. We like the idea that the only limit you have is what you place on yourself. Not quite what Nietzche was saying, but more like what Immanuel Kant was saying. Don't sell humanity short, because we have unlimited potential. Now, before I take this on a more philosophical bent, let me get to the whole reason I bothered to bring Bruce Lee up at all.

We also both agree you need to have an open mind, and you shouldn't be hung up on techniques and learn principles instead. If anything, that's the principle of JKD.

My beef with him is that concept isn't anything new. And this is where I actually tie everything together.

Let me start by rebutting this statement:

"Lots of people who are great at kata cannot translate it in real

I answer this statement in two ways. The first is that what many people's
idea of being "great at kata" is usually wrong. There are many people who are excellent athletes who can kick high, fast, and move real quick. Often times, however, they learn kata that only teaches them to be in great physical shape, rather than being a great fighter. This is a drawback on many people blindly accepting kata that has poor mechanics and thinking it is useful.

The other way is that many people who are "great" at kata are just "great
mirrors." You can teach a monkey to mimic a pattern. A person can mimic the looks of even a practical kata, but unless they actually concentrate on learning the "why" instead of the "what", they will never become good fighters. Most people I've trained with or discussed with divide their training into "traditional kata" and "the useful stuff." With that mindset (and if they're taught to divide it, the kata probably is crap anyway), they'd never be able to gain anything from the kata, even if it was worth knowing. I've met many "kata" collectors who can show me the Shotokan version of one form followed by the Wado Ryu version. I ask them why they do a certain movement, and I rarely get any response better than "I'm punching" or "I'm blocking" or "It's just tradition." For these people, the critics are right.Kata was a waste of their time...but it should not have been.

The focal point is that kata is a training method, a tool. Just like many things in life, "you get out of it what you put in". Unfortunately, if you don't put effort in it properly, you won't get much out of it either.

Kata and drills, the staple of traditional karate, are meant to teach you some techniques, but more importantly, they are supposed to teach you PRINCIPLES. My caps-lock key is actually not stuck, but I harp on that for a reason. There is too much of an emphasis on techniques by many people, some traditionalists (none very experienced traditional martial artists that I've encountered) and many non-traditionalists. As the non-traditionalists argue, a technique may not work in a "real fight" (ironic in and of itself as it often is meant to mean the sports arena, whether that is Taekwondo, the wrestling mat, or UFC). However, you train to gain the understanding of the "why" behind it. Any real fight is often dirty, sloppy and fast. Techniques often don't work out quite the way they do in kata or partner drills. Unless you know the principles firm enough, through a combination of kata (pure theory combined with complete execution) and drills (technique compromised by real world limitations), you're right. The defender does not have to "play by the rules". If you've trained correctly and learned principles, you will make him regret he ever came to the table because you can adapt.

So what does this have to do with the inability of traditional karate practitioners to adapt? Oh, nothing much, except that the notion of nonadapting, unchanging traditional karate practitioners is not the heart of what traditional karate is.

Granted, there are some things that are established as "the way" to do things, but even that changes from year to year, and is only for the purposes of preservation for future transmission (kata being the most obvious example). Nowadays we put karate masters on the spot by asking "what is the official way to do the kata?" We have them make videos or ask how they "count" a certain kata. But in the old days, they weren't necessarily always as precise in their hand placement or demanding that everyone look exactly the same. Because everyone's body is different, the kata will look different. Maybe the emphasis isn't on placing one hand with the fingers of one hand touching the wrist, maybe the emphasis was placed on crossing your hands in whatever manner you can without having to rotate the body, which means the hands will be in a slightly different position for every body type.

But still, you learn the "official" way of doing kata. But as you progress, you develop your own way of doing it, the way that suits you the best. You might argue that the act of learning kata in and of itself is a sort of limitation, but that is an underestimation of the act of learning kata itself (not to mention the myriad of other training methods that karateka do in addition to kata).

In short, the only thing really traditional with karate is the kata. Most everything else, from teaching en masse to wearing a belt and gi, to rigid adherence to form, is new.

The purpose of the kata was self-defence and/or training for self-defence, as was the purpose of traditional karate. Kata isn't necessarily always set in stone (maybe jello, perhaps), but getting rid of kata would get rid of that which defines traditional karate.

And this is why I believe changing with the times isn't exactly necessary. And the reason for that, is because the training method of kata itself, despite the commonly held view to the contrary, is not a rigid, locked, unadapting method of training. It is only that way if you, as the individual who is training, is rigid, locked, and unadapting. So maybe when people that go on about the metaphysical and spiritual glories of the kata are right. In this sense, the kata truly is the representation of your self.


Heri said...

Nice article about karate I wish i found the same type article about taekwondo

Stephen Irwin said...


Excellent blog! Great to see independent thinking in martial arts and elsewhere (not everyone soaks up the rubbish they spout on mainstream news).

The karate article was spot on. Exactly my kind of karate :)

I have linked to your site from my blog at


Jim Neeter said...

Hi John,

Its Jim Neeter here (shoshinkan UK), we spoke on e-budo and via e-mail for a time. I hope you are well. Great blog, I need to thankyou for giving me the idea to do the same,and whilst new please visit

Look forward to hearing back from you,


Bujutsu Blogger said...

I'm doing great! I'll check out your site.

James said...

i must congratulate you on an article well-written. you have neatly captured the usage of "traditional" to convey a thought to the lay person and explained the modernization of the martial arts in steps. on application of bunkai for proper kata practice, have you ever read Barefoot Zen? fantastic book and an "original" spin on kata.

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