Tuesday, June 3, 2014

When is Karate Karate?

There are many forms and styles of martial arts. I've been asked many times, what is martial art? What is karate? First of all, to be a martial art, there must be some esoteric and redeeming value - just like art. Any school kid can kick and punch and mimic ninja turtles, but does that mean they are karate practitioners? Take MMA for instance. I'm no authority on MMA (mixed martial arts), but from what I've seen, most are wrestlers or street fighters who add a kicks and punches. So how can this be martial art?
Kata training at a traditional martial arts school in Mesa, Arizona 
When karate was created on Okinawa centuries ago, it had lineage that progressed through time. It was originally taught to body guards of Okinawan royalty and later to peasants and kept secret from outsiders. Karate evolved from these Okinawan martial artists who traveled back and forth to China to learn Chinese arts and modified them to produce a more pragmatic combat system for the royal body guards. Probably early on, karate was blended with Zen which gave it esoteric value. The Okinawan people used karate to teach their offspring to be positive, self-confident, humble and respectful, which is still the main purpose of traditional karate today. Remember the scene in the Karate Kid?

Daniel San “All right, so what are the rules here?”
Mr. Miyagi “Don't know. First time you, first time me”.
Daniel San “Well, I figured you knew about this stuff. I figured you went to these before. Oh great, I'm dead. I am dead. You told me you fought a lot”.
Mr. Miyagi “For life, not for points”.

Karate was developed as a traditional art for self-defense and self-improvement. Those who trained in traditional karate could do unbelievable things.

Karate was not intended for sport. And just like Miyagi's statement, it was used to defend a person's life, not score points.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Okinawa began to open up and karate was introduced in the public schools on Okinawa. Some karate practitioners also offered demonstrations of the martial art to mainland Japanese. By mid-20th century, the Japanese began to change karate to sport at the objection to their Okinawan instructors, such that today, we have two types of karate: Sport Karate and Traditional Karate. Both are good martial arts as long as the instructors are legitimate.

Sport karate has two parts: kata which focuses solely on outward appearances and kumite which is about winning and losing”. Sport practitioners attend tournaments, wear protective gear, and fight for trophies.

Traditional Karate is different. There is no competition but instead classes focus on positive attitude and respect. In traditional karate, students typically train daily in kata, interpretation of kata known as bunkai (pragmatic applications), body hardening known as shitai kori, the basics known as kihon, exercises known as undo, and weapons known as kobudo. One learns to focus technique and power in traditional karate unlike sport karate where competitors are often penalized for power. In sport karate, contestants are disqualified when they hit too hard - not something you want to learn if you ever need karate for self-defense.

We can gain more insight into traditional karate from statements by various masters and grandmasters from Okinawa.

The father of modern karate, Gichin Funakoshi from Okinawa wrote: “The purpose of karate lies not in defeat or victory, but in the perfection of its participants.”

Grandmaster Shoshin Nagamine from Okinawa wrote: "Kata is the origin of karate. If there is no kata, there is no karate! Without kata, there is no martial art; instead it becomes nothing more than primitive street fighting."

And the late Chojun Miyagi, who was known to tear bark from trees and kick holes in gas cans with his big toe was quoted as saying, “Karate has the ability to train one's body to the point whereby you can overcome an opponent with one technique without the need for weapons.”

So when you pick a type of karate to learn in Arizona, you can pick either sport or traditional school. If the school has trophies in the window, it is sport karate. If the school has no trophies, and classes are hidden from the public, it is likely a traditional karate school. But just because a school advertises itself as traditional, does not mean it is traditional. Check the Internet for either Traditional Karate Classes or Sport Karate Classes depending on your interest.