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Wastelander's picture
An Interesting Essay on The Japanization of Karate

This article came out in the Journal of Contemporary Anthropology back in 2012, and someone shared it with me, today. It's a long read, and nothing terribly surprising, but it's interesting nonetheless, and I thought some folks here might like to read it:


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Nice find that Noah! Thanks for sharing!

“The intimate, pragmatic practices of Okinawan karate required fundamental changes to transition to Japan where they were ritualized, formalized and militarized. These modifications were not always carried out at the direct order of the Japanese government. Often, they were in response to the observations of individual Okinawan masters who felt that changes were necessary for the further dissemination of the art, including recognition of karate's legitimacy by the populations of mainland Japan”

“At this time, numerous techniques and teachings of karate were systematically removed from the bunkai (explanations) of kata and from the kihon waza (basic techniques). The system was reduced to punches, blocks, kicks, and weapons, while advanced techniques were considered unsuitable for school children or the general public. This deskilled karate became the public face of the art”

Mark B
Mark B's picture

Two very telling and significant paragraphs there. I'm at work so am unable to read the whole article -although in theory I shouldn't be writing this post either :-) All the best Mark

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

This is interesting too and complements the recent Zen thread quite well:


All the best,


Perhaps no one else at this time understood the importance of the connection between the uniform, group identity and physical exertion better than Yabu Kentsu:

“A former officer in the Japanese army, Yabu [Kentsu] introduced many procedures still practiced in karate schools worldwide... These innovations included... bowing upon entering the training hall, lining up students in order of rank, seated meditation (a Buddhist practice), sequenced training, answering the instructor with loud acknowledgment, closing class with formalities similar to opening class. Most of these procedures already had been implemented in judo and kendo training and reflect a blending of European militarism and physical culture with Japanese neo-Confucianism, militarism and physical culture. However, these procedures did not exist in China, or in Okinawan karate before Yabu” ( Madis 2003: 189).

Donohue points to “the ritual of the bow and the recitation of dojo kun (the precepts of the dojo normally recited at the end of a training session)” (1993: 113) as key markers of a ritualized behavior that serves to create a privileged space in the dojo. These practices also signal a distinct shift from the karate practiced on Okinawa as described earlier (Friman 1996, Krug 2001, Mottern 2001) and mark the beginning of what is thought of as 'karate' today. Through the adoption of the sport and militaristic elements, as well as the spiritual philosophies of Japanese martial culture, karate was able to find a place in the culture of mainland Japan.

Often supported by and disseminated through the government, these adaptations of the practice found their way back to Okinawa and were largely embraced both by masters and students. To this day, in Okinawa as well as Japan, students wear the gi and colored belts, line up in order of rank and drill in precise lines.