Whilst a lot of people will no doubt have their own opinions on this it is really a rhetorical question, but one that has been brought to the fore again by a couple of recent conversations I’ve had with Karate-ka from different ends of the karate spectrum.
It’s an old chestnut and one rife with disagreement but it really comes down to what “karate” really is and there doesn’t appear to be a definition out there that satisfies everyone on that subject one way or another.
Assuming we are using the Japanese meaning of the words with the modernised (post move from Okinakwa) kanji then the term literally translates as “Empty Hand” which could mean virtually anything, so it really comes down to what to majority understand it as meaning.
This is why I believe so many people append words to their karate, in order to try and define some actual meaning to the term to describe what it is they do and differentiate it from what others do.
I am not referring to styles here. Although there are typically 3 or 4 widely recognised major styles and probably the same in historically established but less widely followed styles these do not really define the activity itself to any large extent, merely the lineage that they trace their original path back to.
It is interesting that the words that they chose typically are not necessarily accurate descriptions of what they do but do paint a (relatively) meaningful picture in people’s minds and therefore impart a measure of common understanding, or at least that is the theory.
“If it walks like a Duck and quacks like a Duck then it’s a Duck!”
Unfortunately however is seems that even within a simple definition like “traditional” karate that whilst some ducks are still ducks there are also a fair measure of pigeons, flamingos and sparrows masquerading as ducks (despite them all wearing the same feathers), and if you look close enough you’ll even find the occasional platypus.
I will leave “sport karate” out of the debate as, despite being “not real karate” in the eyes of many it is one of the few definitions that actually clarifies exactly what it is and those studying it know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.
“Traditional Karate” is a more interesting and probably the most widely interpreted definition that there is.
My understanding is, in concept anyway, that “traditional” karate refers to the Japanese model codified and made popular through the JKA (other traditional groups are available). It uses a defined syllabus of Kihon, Kata and Kumite to teach a specific set of drills and body mechanics as a way of physical conditioning and as a way of personal improvement and development of character through discipline and rigorous physical activity. It requires the development of both physical and mental resilience through adherence to a strict structure of a defined syllabus and constant practice in the pursuit of perfection.
My experience was (although I came up via the SKI syllabus path, the differences are not, or were not, that significant), that this was very much the case. You worked until you were ready to drop, you paid total attention to what was being taught and occasionally (or often) came away battered and bruised, and were happy to do so.
Given the world has moved on it would appear that the term “traditional” has broadened considerably since my day and is now no longer what I understood it to be (although it may well still be in some places).
This is not to have a go at any particular approach at all as, if people are performing the activity as they want and with a clear understanding of what they are doing then there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be doing what they enjoy and for the reasons that they enjoy doing it.
It would seem that the term “traditional” is now applied on the basis that you still wear the white Dogi and follow the coloured belt grading system and that you still perform some of the kihon, some of the kata and what appears to be solo kumite (no, me neither 🙂 ).
I can understand in this day and age, particularly where the student body consist mainly of 6 to 11 year olds, that students don’t want to train until they drop or suffer what can be quite painful injuries on a weekly basis (who in their right mind would 🙂 ), but in some circles we now appear to have de-risked karate to a level where nobody tries to hit anybody any more so the risk of injury is almost completely removed.
This in itself is again neither wrong nor right if students understand what they are doing and what it means (although I can hear the grinding of traditional teeth even from here 🙂 ).
What I do find unusual though is that, when talking to students who have experienced both sides, is that they genuinely feel that a black belt earned this way is still the equivalent to doing it the old way and there really is no difference between them (which says more about what a black belt really means that virtually anything else).
However, I do find it strange that this approach towards karate is still considered by many to be more acceptably traditional than the style of karate that I currently practice/teach (presumably because, although watered down, it is still recognisably the same thing).
My path diverged some years back into what we now think of by label as either “Pragmatic” or “Applied” karate.
This is not considered as traditional (despite being a far older model that pre-dates the Japanese approach) because, to a large extent, it does not carry the same cultural baggage that was bolted on when karate moved to Japan and is an art geared almost solely to practical self-defence. What I am teaching is a practical skill set using traditional techniques and not a “Way” or “Do”.
I cannot in all honesty claim that my version of karate has some ancient legitimacy due to being taught in a similar way to pre-Japanese karate however because I do use exactly the same kihon and kata as the traditional “traditional” model.
It is, in terms of body mechanics and my choice of kata, exactly the same thing. It is just that my interpretation of the meaning of the moves is significantly different and my kumite bears virtually no relation to that practiced in the tradition of JKA style karate.
So to go back to my earlier analogy, the pink flamingo version is what many are coming to understand karate as being (some of these schools have student numbers in the many thousands).
My version is almost certainly the platypus, at a quick glance at the head you could mistake it for a duck but if you take a look under the water you’ll find it is a completely different animal.
So this finally brings us back to the original question, if many thousands of students around the world understand that pink flamingo karate is what “karate” actually is (and with each generation that passes this continues to grow), then is what I do actually still karate at all? And if it’s not that then (despite my adherence to the traditions) what is it?