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dsgintx's picture
Terminology: Inherited Systems

I have no idea if this term is already in use or not but I thought I would share it here, so here goes.

I was looking for a better term for what we have tended in the past to call "traditional martial arts."  It's a slightly less dismissive term than "3-K" I think, but we most often use it to refer to systems that have not yet adopted a more practical approach.  There's loads of discussion about why that approach is not always true to the traditions of the founders of the arts they gave us and that makes the term "traditional" something of a misnomer.

Brain finally worked (takes years sometimes) and this term popped into my head "Inherited Systems."  It seems to me to be more accurate in that it defines a system as something that was provided to us without binding it to what founders may have intended with the term "traditional."

It lacks a snappy acronym like "TMA" but I'm kicking it around and I'm more satisfied with it than with "Traditional."  If I inherit something, it becomes mine and I can then decide what I want to do with it.  Does it fit me?  Should I modify it?  Is it something I would pass on to others?  If it's "traditional" there is a sense of being bound to a practice.  If I don't find the tradition fitting, I'm breaking with tradition.  I'm an outlaw or a heretic.  Sometimes the followers of tradition may regard me as such but I don't accept that as a valid framing of what I am doing.

Curious to know if I'm rediscovering a term I just hadn't heard before.  Also curious to know if others have the same problems with the T word and if this term fits better.  Thanks.

SimonSutherland's picture

I've taken to calling it Modern Karate, since it has developed since the beginning of the 20th century. For me, we inherited what the masters left and so I would use that for the precursor to Practical Karate. So :

Timeframe (Geo) : Pre-1930s (Okinawa) -> Post-1930s (Japan) -> Last 15 or so years (World)

Naming : Inherited -> Modern -> Practical

All the best.

Wastelander's picture

Personally, I tend to refer to 3K systems as "modern karate," as well, and I tend to refer to the older approach to karate, described by the Okinawan masters of the past, as being "classical karate"--that being tied to a particular place and era. Practical karate is really just a return to classical karate, with the added benefit of 100+ years of innovation in the realms of science, medicine, and combat.

Frazatto's picture

I like your point of view, but in terms of culture and knowledge, isn't inheritance the same as tradition?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Frazatto,

Frazatto wrote:
I like your point of view, but in terms of culture and knowledge, isn't inheritance the same as tradition?

I would say not because “traditional” is defined as, “adhering to a long-established procedure”. The “long established procedure” in karate has always been to take what is passed on from one generation, seek to improve it, and then pass it on to the next generation. Not a single generation has passed on karate exactly as it was taught to them. What we personally inherited is not what the next generation will inherit. Therefore, inheritance isn’t the same as the tradition.

Unfortunately, some do have the false view that karate (and other traditional arts too for that matter) are unchanging and must remains so. However, that’s not the actual tradition. I do think of myself as a traditional martial artist, but productive change and innovation are a part of that tradition.

All the best,


dsgintx's picture

I like what folks have added to the discussion.  I am with Iain in not equating "inheritance" and "tradition" and I feel that the T word grants a sort of authority that I don't believe is warranted.  Tradition to me connotes some degree of originality or primacy that (as noted above) is counter to what I regard as the truer practice (that is that the art SHOULD change as you learn it).

"Modern" works better than "Traditional" for me but I still feel like there's some interpretive baggage there that I prefer to avoid.  To wit:

• "This is new and therefore good" (modernism)

• "This is old and therefore better" (traditionalism) 

• "I got this stuff from someone else who came before me." (inherited)

I'm defintiely more of a fan of "inherited" vs. "Heritage".  Again, I'm trying to avoid emotional terminology in an effort to be more precise and also to be more applicable outside of karate (we are far from the only martial arts that suffer from this problem).  I appreciate the way that Iain and other practical karateka have adopted more precise language (e.g. Self-Protection over Self-Defense for example).  I grind my teeth every time I hear the phrase "that won't work in the street" because everyone has some idea of what this "street" is and seldom are two definitions the same.

PASmith's picture

Someone on FB the other day said tradition is "peer pressure from dead people" and that struck me as very apt. :)

Frazatto's picture

dsgintx wrote:
I'm defintiely more of a fan of "inherited" vs. "Heritage".


How interesting, we don't have that word heritage in portuguese! By google, it's the same as inheritance, but we generally say something like "cultural patrimony" to mean heritage in the sense you are using.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

I dunno.  A WTF dojang that teaches Olympic-style TKD ... is it "traditional"? No.  "Inherited"? Not really.  "Practical"? Not for self-defense.  On the other hand they are perhaps really good at winning TKD matches under Olympic rules.

I think the big division is "traditional", meaning "we do this because our teachers did it", versus"functional", meaning "we do this in order to achieve some goal".  The goal may be winning matches under a ruleset--WTF TKD, modern judo, sambo, kickboxing, Muay Thai, or point-style karate for example.  The goal may also be some kind of personal protection, especially without weapons.  In the latter case, folks have taken to calling this "practical."  Of course, one set of techniques/practices might be good for both winning under a ruleset, and defending oneself.

The distinction I am drawing has to do with the reasons people practice the way they do. It is not a question of techniques.  So for example "classical" (pre-1930s, Okinawan) karate might have been functional in Okinawa in 1910, but if they are still teaching the same thing in Okinawa today, it's almost certainly traditional.  It's also not a question of timeline: whatever you want to call today, there is plenty of both functional and traditional approaches around, and this has probably been true for a long time.

The truth is, most karate dojos are a mix, even if they are consciously "practical" in orientation.  They might always pull their hands to the hip in practice, even if they're not grabbing and pulling.  They probably still teach crescent kicks which have minimal real-life usefulness.  They might not teach the Thai round kick, which hits harder than a snappy karate-style round kick.  (Both have their uses; but why not teach the hardest-hitting one?)  And there is obviously lots of tradition in the uniform, the bowing, the terminology, katas taught, and so on.  On the other side, even the most 3-K dojo will be teaching some reasonably effective techniques.

Also, what is "practical" changes with context.  Finger strikes are very practical in a world of manual laborers who condition their hands, but not in a world of soft-handed office workers.  Left hooks, which run a significant risk of breaking hands on skulls, are too risky where medical care is iffy and people make their living with their hands, but a broken hand is not so bad in a mostly-non-violent world with good medical care for broken bones.

I do not think terminology is worth fighting over, too much, but I would favor "practical" = "functional for self-defense"; "sport" = "functional under a competitive ruleset"; and "traditional" = "done at least partly because our teachers did it."  None of these terms are exclusive of the others.  I think some other terms ( "classical," "3-K") are useful too.  If you want to identify the opposites, then "non-practical" "non-functional" etc. will work fine.