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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Changes in Funakoshi's Karate during his lifetime

Hi All,

One of the questions for this month’s podcast (out in the next few days) was related to the evolution of Shotokan and the nature of Funakoshi’s original karate. As part of the discussion I mentioned that Funakoshi’s karate evolved quite a bit during his own lifetime; as it did for almost all the masters. It’s a myth the styles have been passed on unchanged. Change has been the only constant.

Funakoshi wrote in Karate-Do Kyohan, “Time change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practise today is not the same karate that was practised even are recently as ten years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the karate I learned when I was a child in Okinawa”.

The two clips below provide a nice illustration of changes during Funakoshi’s time. The fist clip is an “animation” from stills of Funakoshi doing Tekki Shodan. The second clip is film of him performing the same kata. Notice the differences in stance etc. I hope this of interest and I’ll discuss it a little more in the podcast which will be out in a few days.

All the best,

Iain

Funakoshi Tekki Shodan Version 1 (Turn the sound down!)

Funakoshi Tekki Shodan Version 2

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Great idea Iain. I've been trying to think of a subject for my thesis and this may be it.

What's really amusing to me is that Funakoshi's 'performance' would never win a kata competition these days. Our criteria for what is 'good' shotokan, hell even good karate, has changed so so much over the years.

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

OK here's a loaded question ...

If we agree that this particular chap would fare badly in combat against a modern karate-ka  (no shame in that, a 1920's Olympian in any event would not meet selection criteria today)  does it still make sense to use his training methods? 

Gary

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Only the ones that make sense Gary! wink

There's a reason a 1920s olympian wouldn't perform as well today!

But are we talking aethestics or function? Too many competitive karateka focus on aesthetics, which is not bad considering the arena in which they perform, but when it's to the detriment of function then that's where I move away from them.

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

Jon Sloan wrote:

There's a reason a 1920s olympian wouldn't perform as well today!

LOL

I know, he'd be long dead  smiley

But all joking aside, no milers quote Roger Bannisters 1950's training methods as being the absolute pinnacle of their art.  I often wonder why so many karate-ka are stuck in the 1920's and unwilling to move on to better methods?

Gary

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Ha

Well, I guess it's a case of looking at what has and what hasn't changed, where are the improvements and what your goals for training are.

For sure, fitness training methods and tools have drastically improved since the 1920s so it'll be no strange rocks on sticks for my weight training thanks (though kettlebells do look interesting and they're not exactly new inventions!).

Physically we're about the same as we were back then - two arms, two legs and so on. However, we wear different clothes, there are fewer top knots worn on heads now, no one carries a sword as a matter of course any more and we have guns! As well as a whole load of other changes - so maybe I'd want to change the funtions of some techniques and adapt them to cater for the situations and people I am more likely to be attacked by now.

Anyway, I'm all for change so long as it makes what I do more functional. Though I still applaud people that take part in historical preservation activities, especially when they're preserving someone else's culture too. (And, to a degree, as a karateka and not a RBSD person I know I do that too) - but I won't preserve a system wholesale just 'because' that's how it was always done. I need a better reason than that.

michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture

Gary Chamberlain wrote:

OK here's a loaded question ...

If we agree that this particular chap would fare badly in combat against a modern karate-ka  (no shame in that, a 1920's Olympian in any event would not meet selection criteria today)  does it still make sense to use his training methods? 

Gary

Gary,

I say give a nod to Funakosh, Motobu, Miyagi etc, but where training is concerned I feel better methods are avalible today. Specifically where strength and conditioning is concerned. Also, let us not forget, but the Japanese have been borrowing heavily from western cultures since the early 1920's. Plus, karate has always been an eclectic fighting art, so why can;t we borrow and evolve today just as Funakoshi did?

Mike

miket
miket's picture

michael rosenbaum wrote:

Plus, karate has always been an eclectic fighting art, so why can;t we borrow and evolve today just as Funakoshi did?

That is the central question for me that I think so many miss.  Why do we lock ourselves into a paradigm of non-change and non-evolution when most of our predecessors did exactly the opposite?

That's a serious question I think every MA should ask him or herself, after reaching a certain point of maturity in their training. i.e. 'WHY am I doing this?  Why am I doing THIS drill?  Why do I do this tactic THIS way?  Why am I doing this drill THIS Way? WHAT is it SUPPOSED to accomplish?  Realistically and objectively, ***IS IT*** accomplishing what it is supposed to?  Does a BETTER WAY exist?   

It's just a fact (for me) that I have 'outgrown' or 'evolved past' certain inherited training modalities (and I don't mean 'kata' specifically in that---  actually, I have migrated our system back toward a use of patterned forms... but they are not the karate forms I inherited, and we don't practice them the same 'way' I learned to practice forms in karate) .  However, for me, to continue to employ practices that just 'don't make sense' after giving them a lot of thought just... doesn't make sense. smiley  To stay with training modalities or tactcis when demonstrably BETTER methods are observed is worse still.  That practice really is tantamount to closing your eyes to 'the truth' (which can only ever be 'your own truth').

It all comes down to what you want out of your training, and what you claim to have it focused on; and to the personal use of EFFECTIVE methods that support your growth in THAT direction.

The addition of measuring the 'effectiveness' of any paradigm comes inherent with several other steps, for instance:  establishment and evaluation of personal goals, objective measurement of progress toward those goals, and critical thought/ problem solving around, over, or through methods that are ultimately deemed tobe inneffective in reaching those goals.  Ultimately, I believe such a perspective can ONLY culminate in growth and evolution. 

Partly though, when we look at historic systems, we need to remember to be  thankful for the age in which we live.  Electronics really have changed things.  Thirty years ago, when there were five martial arts gyms in my entire city, it might have been a problem to pubicly hold such an 'enlightened' viewpoint, because it was a small community, and those at the top could effectviely control and limit access to information and training options.  I don't mean to make that sound sinister, but anybody who has been in MA for any length of time knows exactly the practices that I am talking about.  We live in a different time today and 'openess' is (I belive) both more accepted and more encouraged.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Gary Chamberlain wrote:
I often wonder why so many karate-ka are stuck in the 1920's and unwilling to move on to better methods?

Me too! I think the answer is that the training methods have became the goal as opposed to combative efficiency. What I mean is that people engage in a given training method to get good at the training method; as supposed to using it to make them more effective. Changing the training method, even when it leads to improvements, is therefore unacceptable as the training methods itself is the goal. A classic case of “the tail wagging the dog”.

Jon’s point is also related and very valid in my view as people now judge kata aesthetically as opposed to functionally. He’s totally right that many of the past masters would not fare well in today’s kata competitions. That’s not because the kata of the past was “bad”, but simply that it was practised for a different purpose. A kata was valued for what it did as opposed to what it looked like. Worth remembering that Funakoshi is on record as saying that a kata that could not be applied in an emergency was “useless”. A totally different criteria is used to assess the value in kata in many corners of the karate world today.

Back to training methods, we should be looking for whatever can be demonstrated to be most effective and what we find to be most efficient. The Funakoshi’s quote in my initial post shows that “fixing karate in amber” is misguided, and attempts to keep karate “pure” are not traditional or how it was done in the past.

Funakoshi tells of how his two main teachers (Itosu and Azato) would encourage him to learn the best methods out there and present him to other teachers with that goal in mind. It was always about seeking the best that was available and making it part of what you do. Shame that things have changed in that regard.

There is also a “standing on the shoulders of giants” issue here too. English author John of Salisbury (1159) wrote, “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size”.

Any improvement in any field of human endeavour is only possible because of the work that came before. The physics of Newton has been superseded; but all physicists would acknowledge that it was Newton’s genius that made the move forward possible. It should be the same for us. We can only do what we do because of the work of those who came before.

We should have great respect for the past masters. But it we “deify” them, and claim that what they did can never be improved upon, then martial arts stops developing and I think the past masters – who were all innovators – would be horrified at that prospect!

I feel that the past masters deserve our utmost respect and the best way we can do that is by taking the baton and running with it as opposed to standing still or handing it back.

michael rosenbaum wrote:
Also, let us not forget, but the Japanese have been borrowing heavily from western cultures since the early 1920's.

Indeed! Some of the thinking surrounding the use of the martial arts to develop character draw heavily from the practises and ethos of the educational institutions of the west (as can be found it the writings of Itosu, Kano, etc). And whether they want or admit it or not, the footwork used by many karateka today (when fighting each other) owes more to western boxing than it does to any older version of karate.

The bottom line is that the martial arts, like everything else, need to keep moving with the times to remain relevant to the times. It is also foolhardy to reject better methods on the basis of “that’s not what they did in the past”. Based on their writings and actions, I feel sure the old masters would agree. As Funakoshi said, “Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too”. Who are we to argue? ;-)

All the best,

Iain

PASmith
PASmith's picture

There is a very prevelant view in people that "the ancients" (people from the past in various forms) held some sort of priviliged knowledge that we do not know.

Knowledge that has been lost or can only be deciphered by esoteric and arcane means.

We see it things like The Da Vinci Code (and all the books that spawned), traditional chinese medicine, astrology, the pyramids etc. A willingness to believ that despite the hundreds of years of scientific advancements, people without science knew better.

It seems a very human frailty to rate that which has gone before higher than what we have now. I'm not sure why that is really but I suspect it's fairly ingrained (and probably had an evolutionary advantage considering how vital the passing on of knowledge and culture is for humans as a species)

I think many people approach martial arts in the same way. Old is best. The past master knew more than current masters.

They may be partly right in doing so because something from 100 years ago has at least had the time to be tested. But equally somethig new has the benefit of incoprorating current thinking and practice.

Like it or not but many people will always prefer to defer to authority and try to crystalize it rather than learning from the past in order to create the future.

michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture

MikeT wrote:
"Partly though, when we look at historic systems, we need to remember to be  thankful for the age in which we live.  Electronics really have changed things.  Thirty years ago, when there were five martial arts gyms in my entire city, it might have been a problem to pubicly hold such an 'enlightened' viewpoint, because it was a small community, and those at the top could effectviely control and limit access to information and training options.  I don't mean to make that sound sinister, but anybody who has been in MA for any length of time knows exactly the practices that I am talking about.  We live in a different time today and 'openess' is (I belive) both more accepted and more encouraged.

Mike,

That's still the way things are viewed in many Isshinryu circles. Some consider anything outside of what the system's founder presented as breaking with tradition, or anything that goes against the grain of those who introduced it to the United States as breaking with tradition. I'm always curious if wearing a Gi is breaking with traditions. After all, didn't most Okinawans practice karate, te, tuite in their lioncloths? Speaking from a historical perspective fighters throughout the ages have borrowed from others and adapted their combative arts to meet new demands or else improve skills. Funakoshi changed his karate to fit the Japanese needs as did Motobu, Miyagi and others. Likewise they also firmly believed in the Shu-Ha-Ri process whereby the karate-ka was introduced to the style/kata then adapted it to their own needs. Today we only recognize the Shu (introduction) process never mind the RI (internalization) or Ha (modify to fit you) stages. 

Mike R

Nate
Nate's picture

I've actually been wondering this in my Tae Kwon-Do training (ok, it's not Karate, but it borrows heavily from Karate, and faces a similar dilemma). My "old style" Chung Do Kwan hyungs (kata) use deep, elongated stances, while the "new" World Taekwondo Federation "Taegeuk" forms have mostly very upright "walking" stances. I actually was meaning to ask which of these is more like older Karate forms, not to mention which have more realistic bunkai. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2fSFSebIJU this is the " new" form # 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdSuSevNAPQ this is the "old" form # 1

Actually, I'd be quite pleased if someone would simply tell me which is more like Itosu's Karate...

Many thanks,

N.S.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

PASmith wrote:
I think many people approach martial arts in the same way. Old is best. The past masters knew more than current masters.

A great post! While there are definitely plenty of people who hold that view, I would also add that there the converse is true in certain quarters. There are some modern martial artists who believe that the old masters and the arts they created are devoid of all value. They believe it is this generation that has finally discovered “the truth”.

As I’ve said before, there are two main mistakes people can make with regards to the past masters:

1 – The past masters knew everything (a bad trait of some “traditionalists”)

2 – The past master knew nothing (a bad trait of some “modernists”)

Both are incorrect. The combative arts did not reach a state of ultimate perfection with previous generations. It’s also a mistake to think they knew nothing, to ignore the valueable lessons they have to impart, or to fail to acknowledge that everything we have today finds its roots in what they did.

When people take the view that the past masters had achieved perfection and this generation of mere mortals cannot hope to move things along, or to keep things relevant to our times, then everything stalls and nothing can move forward.

When people take the view that the past masters knew nothing and everything they did can be ignored, then it’s a case of “start from scratch” and all the knowledge of previous generations is lost. The base upon which we should be building is effectively eroded.

I see little value in us opting to be the martial equivalent of the Amish. Nor do I see value in throwing away all the very valuable material developed by previous generations.

Michael Rosenbaum wrote:
Likewise they also firmly believed in the Shu-Ha-Ri process whereby the karate-ka was introduced to the style/kata then adapted it to their own needs. Today we only recognize the Shu (introduction) process never mind the RI (internalization) or Ha (modify to fit you) stages.

Absolutely. I wrote an article about that a little while ago and anyone interested in it can find it here: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/styles-are-they-killing-karate

All