Talk to the average person on the street or early stage beginner in Karate (or other arts) about lineage and they probably won’t have a clue what you are talking about.
This is hardly surprising, as far as they are concerned Karate is Karate, they seldom even understand that there are different styles of karate let alone the various sub-sets and diverse lineages within any of those styles.
Some of us like to think they are important but that tends to creep in later in our training careers.
Lineage tends to be seen as a measure of legitimacy within a given style. If you can trace your path back to master “x” then you can be sure you are learning the “real thing” (whatever that may be) and not just something some guy made up himself.
There is also the chance to be “special by association”, nobody in the karate world may have heard of you (I certainly fall into that category 🙂 ) but they will almost certainly have heard of the person you trace your source back to and that seems to be a path to acceptance in the wider karate world.
Depending on your reasons for training this can be seemingly very important or on the other hand totally irrelevant.
Now, if I were to follow this route then I could legitimately claim to be only 3 steps away (4 if I include myself) from Funakoshi himself and, if you understand these things, that starts to sound like a true and impressive lineage back to the founder of the style. However, there are probably many hundreds of thousands of karate-ka (if not millions) who could make the same claim and their karate varies wildly in both style and interpretation.
We think of Funakoshi Gichin as the founder of the Shotokan style but the karate we practice is actually very little like his karate and is really based on the karate of Nakayama Masatoshi and then modified under the dozen or so group heads who went their own way after him, each with their own subtle (or in some cases not so subtle) variations on the original version of JKA style Shotokan. On the plus side it does move me one step closer to the source (on the down side, it does for everyone else as well 🙂 )
To my way of thinking (and I’ll admit this is just a personal viewpoint and not a statement of fact) if you are more than one step down the ladder in any given tree then the lineage rapidly becomes meaningless. You may inherit a common syllabus and a membership of a group that traces it’s path back to the head but at the end of the day your instruction is only as good as the instructor who stands in front of you day after day and week after week.
Whilst I have hung on to the understanding of the basics of karate as taught to me by my own instructor (with some modifications from outside sources) and the kata as they were originally taught to me, the karate I teach on a day to day basis bears little relation to the way I trained with my own first instructor.
There are others who followed the same route as myself who teach a virtual carbon copy (within their understanding) of his karate. We all have exactly the same lineage but our karate and our interpretation of what karate is are wildly different. I know many karate-ka from other lineages who are in exactly the same situation so at what stage does lineage cease to mean anything? (Other than as a badge of supposed legitimacy).
These days I tend to look at lineage as an indicator on whether someone has been involved in a style that does the groundwork on the fundamental principles of karate before moving on to whatever path they have chosen to follow but then judge that person solely on their own level of skill and understanding (as if my opinion matters anyway 🙂 ).
At the end of the day the only person who really matters in your lineage is the one who stands out in front of you every week, what they understand and how well they can pass it on to you. You succeed or fail in your training goals entirely on that basis. Being 4 steps from Funakoshi won’t help.