15 posts / 0 new
Last post
Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture
Karate Purists!?!


I was wondering, what is pure style?

I have many discussions on various Forums and many are self proclaimed Karate Purists. They proclaim that they must keep the style they practice free from outside influences, never cross train in any other style including not practicing Judo etc as well as their core style.

Now looking at the styles that some of the Karate purists practice are Wado Ryu, Shito Ryu and other Okinawan styles. Now I will not speak bad of these styles as they are supurb styles and their pedigree has been proven over and over again throughout history. But if you look at the kata or the founders of these styles, they are in themselves Hybrids of the classical styles of Naha Te, Shuri Te, Tomari Te, including many Kata from Chinese styles in Kode Te. or in Wado's case Japanese Jujitsu. Ohtsuka Sensei trained with many masters not just Funakoshi Sensei.

My thought are that as with Iain and the Bunkai Series and with Vince Morris creating Kissaki Kai Karate Do, and other Senior Martial Artists all proclaim that their studies in other arts allowed them to see what was "staring them in the face" of their core art.

Now, whether or not it is Wado but Judo has been used in cross training to understand the complexity of the kata and/or Aikido for say Ashihara or Enshin, there should be no Watering down of the style in my opinion but actually enhancement. Who gives them the rights to say that because the karate is "watered down" its not as good as someone who has only studied the one art for say 40 years or so. So, for example, are they correct to say it is NOT Wado if you've trained in other arts too.

I chatted with one Hapkido Teacher who said I could train with him but I would have to stop practicing any other styles. I only want to do a few courses etc

I could quote Musashi Miyamoto's Book of Five Rings where he continually states to train in other styles to improve you own core style (or there abouts don't want to be in trouble ofr misquoting him).

 Your thought please on this topic

Stuart Ashen
Stuart Ashen's picture

Black Tiger,

I personally doubt that anything can really claim to be 'pure'. The best anyone could really do is define a date in the past from which they have 'frozen' their art, probably through their kata, and say that it is unchanged from that point.

As for cross training, the old masters appeared to embrace it (Azato/Itosu for example). I personally want to look at doing a spell in judo to improve my technical ability to throw.

As pragmatists I guess we look for lessons from the past (from kata) that are still relevant in application today. I personally love the 'culture' of traditional karate, but fully understand that at best this is only 70-100 years old. Its certainly not ancient in itself even if some of the kata originated much earlier.



Harald's picture

A style can be characterized by principles (and techniques) that are emphasized in the lessons. Due to limited time and other reasons other principles (and techniques) cannot be emphasized/practised to the same amount.

Therefore you don´t  practice wado or shotokan if you do boxing. The jab in boxing is different from tobikomizuki or kizami-zuki. If you have three similar techniques, it might be better to choose one (and it´s variants) than to mix them up, since the principals may be in conflict with one another. And principles should be justified by real situations of application!

If you study judo, you do not practice shotokan karate. It is good to know how to fall and throw. But karate fighters have a disadvantage when applying it to a karateka or judoka. For a drunken guy it may work.

either you are a specialist (pure style?) or you a universalist like a jiyujitsu man. good at one thing(distance) or not bad at three things (distances). Personality and situation will make the winner! One has to know what kind of fighter one is. (for finding out fight as many kinds of  fighters as you can:)


shoshinkanuk's picture

The ony thing that can be 'pure' is the traditon IMO.

And for that (in relation to karate) theres some key areas IMO -

1. the kata set 2. the training methods 3. Strategy & Principles

If these are consistant with your Sensei, and you are part of a Ryu then to a point you are 'pure' to that traditon, as I am with Seito Matsumura Shorin Ryu, and im very proud of that.

Granted I can train with whom I like, when I like and how I like but doing some Judo, or Boxing is not Seito Matsumura and is not part of the traditon and therefore I don't teach it, likewise with other kata im taught at seminars etc etc, I enjoy them but don't retain them.

However, and this is the 'grey' area, but doing other things, with other martial artists I sure learn lots and I allow those things to let me look at my own art in a different way, I won't pretend that these things don't make part of what I teach, they simply do.

For example I trained a little with Terry Wingrove Sensei, and Pat McCarthy Sensei and learn't things from both, but I don't train like Terry Wingrove Sensei and I don't use the specific drills from McCarthy Sensei - I have my own that conform to Seito Matsumura Training Methods, Strategy and Principles.

Same with Iain Sensei work, outstanding stuff and it helps me 'see' certain Bunkai which I then use where appropiate, in my own way according to my own Ryu.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

A very important issue and there are lots of really good points made above. I like it!

The point that often gets lost in discussions on “purity” is that if it was important to the founders of the styles, we would not have those styles in the first place. The founders of the styles would have been teaching exactly what they were taught, as opposed to their own expression of it. There would be no Shotokan, Shito-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, Enshin, Kyokushin, or any other style of karate if the founders of those styles had deemed “purity” to be important.

It’s also worth noting that the supposed “original styles” of Naha-Te, Shuri-Te, Tomari-Te strike me as retrospective terms. What I mean is that they were used to identify linage when at a point in time where the notion of styles was more firmly established. I doubt very much that people who formulated and practised those “styles” considered what they did as Shuri-Te etc. They did “Te” and lived in the Shuri region … later on that made them “Shuri-Te”, but I doubt they thought in terms of distinct styles as we tend to superimpose on them today.

The “modern styles” arose as means to build on what came before to better meet given objectives. The only “purity” that can perhaps be found is a purity of vision.

To use an analogy: Physics changes all the time as research continues, theories are developed and new discoveries are made. The vision of understanding the workings of the physical universe remains the same (i.e. pure). The field of physics is in a constant state of flux though.

When some karateka talk of “purity” they think of preserving something in its current state for evermore. When they do that they abandon the purity of the original vision. This would be like a physicist saying the mechanical physics of Newton should remain “pure”, that quantum physics is a blasphemous affront to the work of Newton, and that any attempt to build on Newton’s work is the height of arrogance! I.e. “Who are you to think you know better than Newton!”. Modern physicists don’t think they are better than Newton. Thanks to Newton they are in the privileged position of being able to study his material as opposed to discovering it. This means they are in a position to build on Newton’s work … and they have Newton to thank for that! A similar situation exists between us and the founders of the modern styles.

To my way of thinking, when we move things on by building on the works of the genius that have came before, and remain pure to the vision of those who came before, we on the same path as the past masters. When we abandon the vision and “freeze” the art, I would say that we are now on a different path all together.

I consider myself to be a traditionalist and a purist. But it is the tradition of seeking knowledge, change and innovation that I wish to be part of. I am also a purist in terms of vision and objective. There is no tradition of “karate frozen in amber”; that’s a very modern notion that has no historical basis. Any false notion of “purity in method” is also an abandonment of “purity of vision”. You can only follow one of those “purities” as they are mutually exclusive. We either continue to develop, or we stay still, we can’t do both.

I wrote an article on this earlier in the year:  http://iainabernethy.co.uk/article/styles-are-they-killing-karate

The article concludes with the following paragraph:

Iain Abernethy: Styles are they killing karate? wrote:
I am in agreement with Mabuni and Funakoshi when they said that all karate was one. That does not mean that all expressions of karate should be exactly the same or unchanging. Instead it means that all the various expressions are simply braches of the same tree. When a tree grows it produces new branches. These new branches are good for the health of the whole tree. Like a tree, karate will be at its most healthy when allowed to grow.

I think that is the “pure” and traditional position; as is reflected in the writings and actions of those who brought karate (in all its forms) to the current generation.

All the best,


Ives's picture

Everyone is physically and mentally different. We might practice the same techniques in the same style/lineage/dojo, but my cognition differs form yours. My physical abilities differ from yours. We both train Karate, you train yours, I train mine. Let's train together. What makes karate pure? I guess that tree metaphor comes close, but I don't know for sure.

Boris B
Boris B's picture

I just want to expand on one aspect mentioned by Ian:

"It’s also worth noting that the supposed “original styles” of Naha-Te, Shuri-Te, Tomari-Te strike me as retrospective terms"

What if you were concerned about "lineage" and "style" if there was at least no original "style" to begin with?

In the book "shotokan's fighting secrets" by Bruce Clayton there are some pages devoted to this topic. First of all, these three town/villages are located very closely to one another, and second, according to Clayton, the founders of these "styles" have very likely been ex-bodyguards from shuri castle now teaching in their home towns.

I am aware that Clayton's book may contain a lot of fictional elements - but some things do make sense and make you think.  The close vicinity of these villages cannot be argued - and a thorough martial arts education couldn't be obtained by peasants, so the idea of court officials being trained as bodyguards does make some sense to me.

Maybe these bodyguards had special jobs in the bodyguard scheme and therefore emphasised different aspects in their training? Or their physical structure pre-selected them for different tasks?

Maybe the bodyguard - idea sounds so great that I WANT to believe it wink

shoshinkanuk's picture

From memory in relation to 'influences', significant ones from China I think Mabuni, Funakoshi and Miyagi all write - in some detail about the 2 schools from China theory - which I personally believe is sound. (considering the Shorin and Shurite kata sets), it's not perfect of course - but what is?

The 3 regions theory I believe was invented to simply disguise the arts Chinese roots to the Japanese, however it then 'became' more of a reality in terms of regional developments of the art, at a time when the Masters would have wanted their own identity (and power/influence and of course money........students pay after all).

Just some thoughts.

Andrew Carr-Locke
Andrew Carr-Locke's picture

I've never learned more about Karate, than when I started studying Jiu-Jitsu....

 ...and there is no movement I have learned in any fighting art that I couldn't find in Te Katas somewhere. I just had no idea what it was until I started looking outside the karate-box. What you may think of as a 'block' right now could actually be something else entirely, but you'll never know without cross training (and this includes sparring with different kinds of trained athletes as well).

If you want to get better at punching, try Boxing. Want to get better at controlling someone with your arms and grips, try Greco-Roman Wrestling. Want to add thorwing, try Judo. You can do all of this without loosing your 'Karate' and without sacraficing anything from your art. In fact, it can only make what you do better, and there is no reason that you can't call what you do 'karate'.

The thing that makes karate what it is [to me], is the underlying principals and the concepts of the training theories. I study karate. I teach karate. When I train, I do it to make my karate better. From the outside it could appear that what I do looks like Judo somtimes, or BJJ, or MMA, or Boxing. To me it's all karate, because I don't change the methods I use when I look at my art as a whole. It doesn't really matter that I've not studied or practiced kata in a decade, because the form is not the thing- it is merely an expression...

Form must follow function.

Because there is an optimal way of moving according to anatomy and physics, every functional movement will be the same regardless of style or art. There is a best way to generate power from the hips. This doesn't change- ever.

So on the idea of purity, we cannot ignore the fact that there was a relitively small number of karate practitioners, and that they all trained together, or shared ideas (and students). They encouraged cross training, and travelling abroad to incorporate techniques. It was the original MMA concept of doing what worked and adding to it. It matters very little that they way they passed along the techniques was through oral disscussion and prearranged movement patterns- because again how they passed the information along, is not the thing- it is just the form (which is encouraged to be discarded once it has been absorbed and the principal learned fully). So what were those people after... I believe that it was all just a search for the most functional movements they could come up with for the situations they were dealing with. And this is what we should be doing. Forget formal style, and search for function.

The idea of tradition and pure styles are a modern falsehood. They don't exist. In fact everyone has their own style based on their personality and ability, and it should be this way. Proper training will teach a student all the fundamental techniques and allow the student to progress to a point where the movements become their own unique expression. If you are copying someone else and not adding your own influence then something is missing. Don't deny your own experiences.

Just a quick line of thoughts.....have fun.

Harald's picture

 Happy new year to every member of this community!

Dear Andrew, I very much sympathize with your line of thoughts! I fought and trained what I got. But still, I am karateka, no judoka, no boxer,... Style gives you a shape, it forms you,, makes you able to do cool things:) Pure style? I don´t know what the question is. for me, karate is to use what is available. throw your mobile phone, spit, bite, kick sand in the eyes (bassai!)... after you got shaped by our style, you have to take responsibility of yourself. the only criterion is what works. Flexibilty is a worth. If you can throw or lock sb, do it. Techniques change with age and so on. The perfect art in 18xx may not fit the situation in a disco in 2011! The only thing what counts is: don´t let you get down by an opponent. avoid this by any means. this is karate. is this purist? definetely! ;)

Harald's picture

I suggest that the difference between sports and budo is more important than questions of style. In this respect mma is sports since rule governed. Budo karate does not accept rules and embraces everything that helps to save one´s life.

GeoffG's picture

I don't train in one of the "major" styles of karate so style purity is not something that I've had to think about in great detail. The really interesting question for me is what exactly is meant by "purity of style". If purity of style means dogmatically training in the same manner as the founder, then I'm not entirely convinced that we should try to maintain purity. Why? The main reason is that the founders were human and therefore subject to making mistakes or getting "stuck in a rut".

As an aside, I work in the IT industry and its easy to see that highly intelligent, skilled, and motivated people exhibit these traits on a regular basis. Whilst there are regular failures, it gives us a chance to learn from the mistakes and implement technologies to (hopefully) reduce the risk of it occurring again. I have worked on a number of IT projects that have not performed as well as they could have, but it has taught me to look critically at what we're doing to understand it and identify areas of potential improvement. I have worked with numerous experts in their field, but they still make mistakes.

Getting back to karate, the founders were far better karateka than I'll ever be; however, that does not mean that what they developed is appropriate now or that there are not better or different methods of achieving the same goal. Conversely that does not mean that they were wrong either, but without studying and critically analysing their style, methods, and writings we will never know. I have been trying to apply the critical thinking I've learned in my day job to my karate, and I have found that it is evolving in ways I never expected. That may mean that I'm "polluting" the "style" I train in, but at the same time it may be unlocking the secrets that were already there but not actively taught (or I was too blind to see) so perhaps I'm not.

After all that rambling what I'm advocating is that purity is important but not so important that we ignore or reject other methods for the sake of purity. I don't believe that "styles" should be changed without careful analysis of what we're doing and why we're doing it, before making changes. In other words, don't make change for the sake of change, but understand what change you are making and why you are making it.

Gavin J Poffley
Gavin J Poffley's picture

In my opinion the attachment to formalised and clearly defined and named styles in karate and many other martial arts of Japanese origin has a lot to do with the cultural landscape that they developed in. From the somewhat privileged position I have being intimately familiar with the development of Japanese culture and its interaction with the west due to my academic and professional background I can clearly see a lot of Japanese influenced attitudes and assumptions floating around in a lot of European or American karateka's mindset. Unfortunately many of these are fundamentally misunderstood, amplified to ridiculous degrees or reinterpreted and mutated beyond all recognition. All par for the course in cross cultural fertilisation but it does help to get these things in perspective and look at the roots and reasons behind them rather than just slavishly follow without understanding (a goal of most folk on this website I would imagine).

Many people take the idea of a a "style" to mean a specific technical way of doing things or a syllabus but in Japan it is the concept of a group or organisation that is perhaps more important. This can clearly be seen in the naming with almost all classical systems bearing the family name of the owning dynasty and many more modern styles using "kai" (organisation) or "kan" (lit:hall or meeting house, representing a building where an official organisation is based) in their names. Contrast this with many Chinese styles that try to imply something of the technical nature or ethos in their names or western ones that are more often than not just named after the area they come from.

Throughout the history of the Japanese nation it has always been vitally important for individuals to belong to a clearly defined group and to show loyalty and conformity to its practices. This can still be seen today with the undeniable influence and power enjoyed by those who are members of large and well known companies compared to those from smaller, less well known organisations. Practically all professions crafts and arts were organised and run by a number of such cartels (most widely known as iemoto for crafts or ryuha for the arts) and it was almost impossible to operate outside of the system due to a combination of strict licensing and Confucian cultural preference for the established, the sanctioned and the "official". As many international business analysts will tell you, moving into an established market in Japan is incredibly difficult without affiliation to an established player. 

The very concept of a martial arts organisation came from this model and however good your technique or effective your teaching you would never have gotten very far without the formal structure of a ryuha to act as a banner saying "we are legitimate and follow the rules you are accustomed to and thus have prestige and are trustworthy".  I have no doubt that the old Okinawan master from a much different martial culture and teaching a nameless and loosely structured art informally in his garden would have received nothing but derision from the mainland martial elite. The people like Funakoshi, Miyagi, Uechi and Mabuni who brought karate to mainland Japan were no fools and clearly understood this, pretty much adopting mainland organisational doctrines wholesale.

Now, things have indeed moved on from then and with the transfer to other cultures where such lineage and formality is not as valued there have been changes, however, despite many changes in structure and apparent "democratisation" old attitudes die hard, especially in an anachronus world like martial arts where the old values are promoted. In many respects these original attitudes (themselves mainly romantic reinterpretations of the medieval period from early 20th century militarised Japan) have actually remained and been magnified after they came to the west in a sort of cultural ghetto whereas they have evolved somewhat in Japan to fit more with the modern world (as the whole of society in Japan adapted and modernised there were clear paths and patterns to follow whereas in the West the imported "Japanese martial arts culture" remained alien and was never truly assimilated).

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Gavin,

Absolutely fantastic! I like that lots and found it an interesting read. Thank you for posting!

All the best,


swdw's picture

When you read some of the histories of the Okinawan karate "greats", you'll notice almost the opposite attitude Gavin mentions until they were pretty much forced into japan's way of categorizing in the 1920's. Many Okinawans felt it was necessary if karate was to be accepted by the Japanese. In fact it was actually a requirement by the Budokan to codify and name the karate style if they were to be accepted.

And thus it began, the long slide into bickering, division, and snobbery that unfortunately is carried on by students that want to be part of something, "elite", rather than part of a community.