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Karate Yesterday and Today

Karate Yesterday and Today

This article was written by Steve Chriscole, who was the editor of a superb publication called Kata Unlimited (now sadly no longer published).

I'm sure you'll enjoy Steve's article and I'm very grateful to him for letting us post it here.



Karate Yesterday and Today

by Steve Chriscole

I'll lay my cards on the table right away. This article is not meant to be pretty and nice. I have no intention of sweetening the pill so as to make my comments more palatable. That said, if you don't like direct talking, then I suggest you turn the page right now. I don't say these things to entice you to read more; far from it. What I have to say is controversial and some might even say "rubbish". Well we're all entitled to our opinions. For me too much time has gone by, too much wasted time and energy.

I have a particular view, which I would like to share with you. It's simply this. Karate is an activity designed for personal protection, up to and including causing the death of one's assailant. The activity largely practiced today is one which is designed primarily for self development and sport. The techniques taught lead the student to believe that they are effective fighting techniques. For the most part they aren't. I am fully aware of the devastating effect of a reverse punch. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm referring to theways in which students are taught to apply the basic techniques they learn.

Just to highlight the point, have you ever had a Karate lesson where you have been practicing basic techniques such as oitsuki, gyakuzuki etc., or even kihon ippon kumite or the like, then moved onto ji yu kumite in the second half of the lesson? We all have, I'm sure. Did you notice that everything you learned in the first half of the lesson bears little if any relation the latter half? There's a good reason for that. It's because ji yu kumite is sport fighting and bears absolutely no relation to real fighting. This is fine if you are firmly of the understanding that you are learning a sport. But what if you thought you were learning self defence? What if no-one tells you when you join a club, that the techniques you will learn are geared for the sports arena and not for real life? Worse, what if you train hard for 3 to 5 years, get to shodan and believe that you have learned the rudiments of a fighting art, but the reality is that you've only been taught basic techniques and not how to apply them in a real situation?

I know a number of people (myself included) who have become increasingly uncomfortable and disillusioned with their training, because they thought there was more to it all, but their teachers couldn't (or wouldn't?) help. I began training in 1978, and in all those years (until quite recently) not one teacher ever made the distinction at all. Is your experience similar?

So now you have an idea of the flavour of this article. So now let's have a short look at what Karate used to be, a couple of hundred years ago. It was designed as a deadly fighting method, as I'm sure we all know, in the Ryukyu Islands off the coast of Japan & China . It was needed simply because there were little if any organisation that provided protection to the general public. The needs of a personal protection system were paramount because of the lawlessness of the times and the danger from bandits as well as the idiot off his head on sake! Everyone has heard of the lawlessness of the American "Wild West" times, well it seems to me that there are significant similarities between this and the times in Japan & Okinawa of the Middle Ages onwards.

If we shift back to the society of today for a while, I would be the first to agree that the world we live in today is different to those distant times, but only in certain ways. Today we have a legal system. It's not perfect by any means, but it affects our daily lives none-the-less. Unless you live without TV or radio, you will be only too aware of the gang warfare in our cities, huge amounts of drug frenzied attacks, not to mention the threat of violence from the vast numbers of alcohol intoxicated people in the bars and night clubs around the country (and if you think I'm exaggerating, then spend a bit of time in the waiting room of your local accident & emergency department on any weekend night, or I can direct you to the hot-spot in my local town at the weekends). Then there's domestic violence and a tiny minority of premeditated violence. I forgot to mention football violence, and the general threat from the kids that roam the streets with nothing better to do than intimidate people. Violence is on the increase and it is fair to say that in everyone's lifetime, they will face the threat of direct violence to their person at least once.

Now let's go back to the "Wild West" for a moment. Power struggles, gangs of bandits preying on whomever they could and authority (what there was of it) carried a gun. Well, change the location, go back a few hundred years and change the gun for the sword and you've got Okinawa in the 1500's. In both instances, there were the innocent, law abiding people who just wanted to make a living and get on with their life's, but as always, these are usually the ones who fall victim to those with murderous intent.

It was in those early (some would say uncivilised) times that the civilians of Okinawa developed self defence fighting techniques. I'm not going to go into just who developed it or how particularly, because no one knows for sure. The popular view has been that the peasants developed fighting skills as a result of the ruling factions banning the stockpiling of weapons. Others say that it was the nobility who developed them and they gradually seeped out into the general population over centuries; or even a mixture of the two. The "how" is not important to this discussion. What is important is that Karate (Toudi-jutsu or Te, as it was originally called) came into being as a modified version and mixture of Chinese quanfa and Japanese samurai arts and they were learned behind closed doors. Its purpose was for the defence of the individual. There were few ideas of esoteric intent like "it makes you a better person" or "it provides the vehicle for self knowledge". These ideas come from the Shaolin monks and others who introduced Zen Buddhist philosophy and attempted to temper their use of fighting skills with some regard for human life (more on that in a minute). Te was learned by a comparative few because they wished to live, pure and simple.

Let's try and keep things in perspective. People are still the same today as they were then. We all fear and feel inadequate. Many have been beaten and never want it to happen again. Why should the reasons for learning a fighting skill be any different in ancient Okinawa , than they are today? Are the circumstances different? Of course, different country, culture and time. But human beings have not changed, despite what you may have heard to the contrary. If you think we are more civilised, then just take a look at the atrocities we are capable of in both civilian and military circles, both in the UK and abroad.

Imagine a life where there are no policemen, no judicial system to speak of and you were at the mercy of the local ruling factions (local king and officials, plus the overseeing samurai of the Satsumas). I guess you'd feel pretty scared and inadequate!

Now let's move on and have a look at the introduction of the Zen Buddhist element. Introduced into the Ryukyu's by the travelling Chinese and by the early 2 nd century, firmly routed in the Japanese mainland. The samurai took readily to the Zen Buddhist philosophy. Some would argue the reasons for this were because of their striving to become better people and more in tune with humanity. I would offer another explanation. Zen training allows the participant to attain a state of mind called " Mushin " or "No mind". This is a mental state in which the mind is free of the concerns of the moment and free of emotions. This is a perfect state for the warrior, especially one who needs to have total control of the body and mind for the split second and highly practiced (now automatic) movements.

Mental training was then and still is key to combative arts. The use of Zen, which has at its heart mental conditioning, has been used extensively over centuries within the martial arts. So much so that it is inextricably linked to the thinking processes of the Eastern practitioner.

We could continue with the fantasy that Karate is the means to inner peace and self knowledge, but speaking as one who has worked in the field of psychotherapy for a number of years, I can see that exponents of Karate would like to believe that the "Way" is through diligent application to training, when in fact it is the intertwining of Zen Buddhist beliefs into a philosophy which is modern Karate which largely has the effect of personal development. How have I come to this conclusion? The answer is a great deal of research in areas such as human psychology, Eastern history and the Japanese and Okinawan fighting arts. Then there's the personal development which has happened independently of my many years of martial arts practice. In saying this, I don't want to give the impression that I am in any way an expert. I just see myself as one who has a curiosity and willingness to learn more about the martial arts. I have felt ill at ease with the things that I have been taught and instead of just shrugging my shoulders, I have chosen to explore, to ask questions and to attempt to gain better understanding. As students in any field, isn't this how we learn?

Putting all this together brings me to the conclusion that the Karate we have in most dojo today is a semi-philosophical activity which is teaching that the practicing of this art brings enlightenment and personal development. But this is not completely the truth! I believe this to be misleading and its time to set the record straight. If everyone took some time to study Zen Buddhism in isolation, then the elements in Karate that are Zen would stand out for what they are. Please don't get me wrong, I am all in favour of Zen and its principles, as they ally very closely to my own beliefs. But don't people have the right to know what it actually is that they are being taught?

There's nothing wrong in my view, with "Karate-do" in the sense of it meaning "an empty handed (Chinese hand if you prefer) way of life", providing those that teach it actually realise for themselves what it is that they are involved in, and they then make it plain to others what it is that they are teaching. I personally find it quite upsetting to find myself involved in an activity for many years, only to find out that the basis for the whole approach is that of a religious sect, and I wasn't told! I didn't start Karate to be taught Zen Buddhism; I did and still do it to learn self defence. Quite frankly I am appalled that I have been so misinformed.

Often I've heard students and teachers ask of each other, "So why did you start to learn Karate?" Those new to the art usually say "for fitness" or "for self defence". How many say "I joined because I wanted to gain self enlightenment"? Certainly, what I also often hear is "Well, I started because I was bullied, but now I do it because I feel more confident and I just like it." This sounds like a vague kind of answer, yet is very common indeed. Ask many experienced Karateka why they "do it" and they will be hard pressed to put it into words, unless they have taken some considerable time to reflect on it.

What is the majority of Karate today? I see it as an activity bound up in the philosophical ideology of firstly the Zen teachings as I've already said, but more than that, it is an activity which has embedded within it, the remnants of a nationalistic fervour, from a time when that country (Japan) saw nothing better than usurping the newly "discovered" Toudi-jutsu for its own ends, in order to make its population more pliant and controllable, and paradoxically physically stronger and make military attitudes a part of the "psyche" of the population. It's no coincidence that the universities and schools were targets for the first Japanese schools of Karate.

What we have inherited today in what we call Karate-do is a mixed bag of activity of the above. Today, the Japanese practitioners continue to teach the art, but why do they insist on teaching "children's Karate"? Is it that we are stupid and cannot be trusted? Is it for our own safety? Or is it that they themselves have forgotten the real meaning of Karate? I honestly don't know which answer is the truth, or if indeed, there is another answer. What I do know is that what we call Karate today is a "newly" created art, which in itself is not news, which bears little resemblance to its Okinawan origins. It is an art which has evolved into a sport (for the most part) but often the packaging says something else.

Perhaps they (the Japanese) like us in the West have come to believe that what we have been taught over the last 100 years (since it was introduced into the Junior schools of Okinawa ) is the true art of Karate. What I find hard to reconcile, is that the history of the art is there for us to see, yet most see it but either choose not to see the implications or ignore them completely. And when I say it is there for us to see, most will have heard that Funakoshi Gichin himself originally spent 9 years learning the three Tekki forms. Have you ever wondered why? And if you have, have you ever then moved on in thought to wonder why his Shotokan was changed and moved away from such study? Strange isn't it? That the one area that was regarded as core and fundamental to the art of Toudi-jutsu has become side-lined, ignored, ridiculed and at best turned into a demonstration of aesthetic ability. But when kata is analysed correctly, then we can see just how woefully inadequate much of the teaching in today's Karate actually is.

But in fairness some of these discoveries have only come to light in very recent years. Karate's history has been shrouded in secrecy. Written documents are scarce if non-existent. The 1942-45 war with Japan has muddied the waters and much evidence was lost in the battle for Okinawa . There are any number of extenuating circumstances. But I do not believe that after all the time that has passed that there is any excuse for the hundreds of Karate organisations that exist, many of which are set up on the basis of inadequate information and dubious principles I have discussed in this article.

There's no easy answer. I certainly don't expect these organisations to just suddenly change. In fact I would be very surprised if they changed at all..ever. But that isn't the purpose of this article. Martial arts study (in my experience) is a highly personal journey. So it makes sense to look around, question the accepted norm, learn new things. I hope that this article in some way may begin to motivate you to do just that. It's only by those who practice asking questions that anything can change. There are a number of individuals around the UK who have already begun asking questions. There are some who have been studying Karate in ways which are more in keeping with the original art of Toudi-jutsu, for many years.

© Steve Chriscole 2003

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