Traditional Karate: Stumbling Block, or Useful Distinction?

Note: I would like to acknowledge the enormous contributions of my teachers and training colleagues to my thinking on this matter: most notably Robert Miller in his essay “Modern Karate: A Reconsidered Pedagogy”; Dr. Gillian Russell’s essay “Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts” and David Campbell for providing a solid sounding board for my inchoate, all-over-the-place musings.

“Traditional Karate”: A Problem of Definitions

Over the past couple of years, an increasing level of conversation has developed amongst karate practitioners about what karate is. As practitioners of the fighting arts learn more about each other via books and the internet, and the rise of mixed martial arts has provided a yardstick for the superiority of this technique or that, the standard answers are becoming more and more inadequate. This process of reckoning is acutely noticeable on online discussion forums.  If you throw the question of “what is karate?” onto a discussion board, the replies will cover a very broad range of interpretations and practices. Some replies will take all facets of training and the contingencies of fighting into account and evaluate them carefully, while others will staunchly defend this major brand name or that as “the” keepers of correct tradition.” In an age where ideas and methods can be accessed at the click of a button and information is more available than at any other time in history, many karateka still insist on wearing blinders. Some who engage in these conversations become very distraught at the suggestion that their school of choice is not recognized by all as being the best (epistemic viciousness at its best), while others actively pursue new perspectives.

As troubling as these discussions can be for some, I find them to be heartening signs of the change that is starting to inundate the entrenched notions of what karate is and how we should be practicing it.  After years of dedicated training, many are starting to look outside the narrow boundaries of their style or school for a fuller picture, while others have already made that leap and landed firmly on ground that they were told did not exist.  The notion that Karate is one thing that is for sale from a few legitimate torch bearers is no longer the status quo. To be specific, the Western practice of karate that is emerging outside of the large organizations is a reflection of the aspects that Western practitioners regard as vital, and these are not necessarily the same as those mandated by Japanese organizations (or those modeled on them). A few signals of this paradigm shift have been pointed out by various writers, namely:

-Western values and educational methods are beginning to replace those modeled on Japanese ones (particularly the ones that exist in concept, but not practice) within the pedagogical and cultural frameworks;

-training methods and prioritization openly reflect individual groups or practitioners’ recognition of effective skills for managing and surviving violent behavior, instead of relying on organizationally prescribed content;

-motivated by the rise of MMA and reality-based self defense, practitioners are no longer content with thin rationalizations for what are essentially Budo or sport-derived training methods taught as self-defense (heavy emphasis on repetition of air basics for character development, point sparring as real fighting, accepting daft kata applications at face value, etc.)

-the belief, either stated or unspoken, that Japanese teachers, organizations and methods are superior to any others is vanishing

Invariably, people on all sides of this conversation will explain their practice as “traditional karate” to distinguish their practice from others that they find to be unrepresentative. However, this is where the conversation becomes infinitely murkier rather than clearer. It’s hard enough to nail down what karate is among the diverse and different practices being called by the same name. But as a way to distinguish among them, tradition is an albatross of a term that hangs around our collective necks in that it doesn’t clarify the discussion, but invokes a vague retinue of ideas that all fall under the heading of “traditional.” The problematic nature of this term becomes obvious when we consider that many groups claim to practice traditional karate, yet what constitutes their tradition is specific to that group only. This is compounded further by the fact that most of what is considered traditional within karate is less than 100 years old, and the most identifiable features are simply artifacts of organization (gi, belts, dojo, Japanese terminology, bowing ceremonies, tournaments, the stilted “3 K’s” pedagogy). Further, these artifacts and traditions are a product of the Japanese cultural influence on Okinawan arts, and in many cases the Okinawan cultural content has been almost entirely purged- is that a lesser tradition? Are we to believe that the newer approaches (which are heavily built around competitive values) are more valid traditions than the ones that they have supplanted? And what of the hybrid approaches that address one of karate’s central tenets, self defense, with practicality instead of magical thinking- are they less “traditional” than mainstream organizations?

There are innumerable groups out there training in very comprehensive programs that address very practical self defense skills, as well as supportive training drawn from the sports science field and psychology. Ironically enough, these “non-traditional” groups are incorporating the subject areas that were historically part of Okinawan karate. Meanwhile, a large organization claims that it is the “keeper of karate’s highest tradition” or something equally inane, and in doing so dismisses all others out of hand. These groups often identify themselves directly with some tradition or founder, and make their claims at exclusivity despite the relative youth of their approach. But exactly what is their tradition? Often, these claims are made alongside the admittance that the original founder would not have approved of the direction that the organization has taken his karate. In the same sentence however, the further claim will be made that the organization has “improved” the old style karate, yet the product that they are offering is still more traditional than any other! To put it simply, as soon as a “traditional” group denounces practices of another group, the group in question can claim to be part of a different, perhaps more illustrious tradition, traced all the way back down to Boddhidharma (the origins of this particular fictional claim lay in works of Chinese fiction; see Kennedy and Guo’s “Chinese Martial Arts Manuals: An Historical Survey” for an excellent discussion). Yet if every “traditional” group claims lineage with the same historical figures or circumstances, the attempt to define “tradition” becomes hopelessly reductive.

Tradition as a Stumbling Block

Where attempts to define traditional karate fall flat, history can fill in some of the gaping blanks. Historically, the learning of self defense capabilities alongside personal development (and arguably, societal benefit) have long been attached to karate practices. At the broadest, karate is exactly “an empty handed self-defense art” or “Weaponless art of self defense” as the name itself implies.  Any empty-handed tradition could arguably fall under that heading, regardless of national origin. At a narrower end, we could say that only empty-handed arts from Okinawa or Japan compose the traditional karate family; narrower still, only arts from the Okinawan family. However, the only standard in karate is change, especially change in response to adoption by a new culture. For those of us who love the idea of doing “Japanese” or “Okinawan karate” (whatever that may mean), the label is largely defined by a cultural element of the pursuit. In some ways that is not too different from participation in historical anachronism, or at the extreme, LARPing (and that does not overshadow or invalidate the technical content being practiced, although it certainly does in many cases). For those of us who are more interested in non-culturally specific elements, the “empty handed self-defense art” categorization is still appropriate, but the term “traditional” needs to go.

The paradox of dealing in tradition as a distinguishing feature is that we can end up with practitioners at very different ends of the spectrum from each other, embracing or discarding various practices and artifacts, yet both maintaining that they are practicing “traditional karate.”

In this light, it seems more appropriate to say that what we have are a wide variety of traditions, not any one tradition that we can point to as “the most traditional karate.”Whatever that karate looked like, it simply does not exist anymore, and no amount of reconstructing or lineage tracing can make us practitioners of it. I appreciate that there are groups that are very proud of the fact that they are doing things just like they were taught by their teacher, who did them just like their teacher, etc.- but it is still not the same karate as someone practiced 100 or 200 years ago. The reason is simple: conditions are no longer the same as 100 or 200 years ago, so the art will not be an exact replication. And really, why should it be? If karate is a living art that’s only historical constant has been adaptation to changing times, social climates and cultures, then it follows that the form it takes is highly malleable.

In the end, people are the deciding factor as to what is retained or discarded from their practice of karate, or in the case of teachers and students, what ideas are presented as tradition; tradition can not exist independently of people. The traditions that we currently have from this process can be macrocosmic or microcosmic- they might extend to thousands of practitioners, or just a handful. The JKA is one tradition. Kenkyukai Uechi Ryu is a tradition. IOGKF Goju Ryu is another tradition. The fat guy teaching a bunch of kids gymnastic role-playing is another tradition. The guy in a hoodie teaching self defense in a garage gym to a handful of students is teaching another tradition. There may be some or no overlap. In all cases, it is up to the leaders and students of the group to establish what elements constitute that group’s tradition.

But that still does not help us distinguish between what we are comfortable calling traditional karate, and what makes us cringe. To clarify the issue, some advocate the use of “intent” to classify practices as being traditional or otherwise. Intent is usually described as the motivating purpose behind training. With intent as a deciding factor, it becomes easier to cleave through some of these confusing arguments and distinctions. But a group that does 90% air kihon and tournament sparring can still insist that they are training with the intent to be lethal fighters, while a group of people from eclectic training backgrounds might focus more on partner work and situational training than on kihon marching, and make the same claim. Despite the claims, the intent of each group is obviously different. But how do we distinguish between the two in a way that is objective and accurate, and does not play into the “tradition” trap?
Validity: Rectification of Goals and Methods
There is a big difference among groups that might all be calling themselves karate. I don’t like it when someone assumes that what I do is the same as their kid’s McDojo afterschool daycare thing, or that I will automatically hold them in esteem because they wear a starched white gi, use Japanese terminology, have a crisp down block and shout “Osu!” at each breath. It may be karate, but it is not what I do- and what I do may make others feel the same way.  So how do we resolve how these groups fit into the loose scheme of “karate”? While all out syle-bashing can be counterproductive, it is nonetheless valid, acceptable and very necessary to distinguish the fat guy teaching gymnastics from the garage dojo from the major organization- but not by falling back on the usual argument of “we are more traditional because…” The garage sensei may be teaching something that is just as valid (or more) as the major org, while the McDojo guy is totally invalid to both.

That gives us a term to fixate on: valid. How can we decide what claims are valid or not, and reconcile that with the idea of intent as a major distinguishing factor? To do so productively, we must move away from reliance on concepts of tradition, and especially notions of karate as expounded by commercial organizations; it must be remembered that at the most basic level, such groups are concerned with making money from a dedicated membership who is ‘buying’ their version of karate. In the end, the practices of individual dojo, instructors and their students need to be examined if we are to objectively and accurately classify the intent of their practice; the rhetoric of large organizations is inherently biased. Based on experiences as a visiting student in several dojo with different affiliations, definitions of karate and training methods I suggest that this can be done with a simple analysis:

To assess the validity of a group’s stated intent for training, compare:

A) The claims that a group/teacher makes about the goals/benefits of training

with
B) How realistically the training methods will enable students realize the goals/benefits;
C) If A and B are in harmony, the group is valid in relation to its own claims. Validity in relation to other groups is relative, and validity with respect to developing practical fighting skills is it’s own subject altogether.

If A and B are out of synch, they are invalid according to their own claims. They may still be labeled as “karate”, but there is a firm point from which to distinguish between the intents behind different groups’ training methods. In cases where the relationship of methodology to goals is disputed, simple physical testing of the representative practitioner’s own claims should make the disconnect clear, especially if this involves participants from outside of the school in question (the numerous clips of investigators thwarting the attempts of George Dilman and the like to use chi/ki energy to affect them are amusing examples of this process in action: the deadly ki techniques simply do not work on volunteers from outside of the school in question. Sadly, the students and teachers of the school being so tested always have a range of absurd excuses for why they failed to produce any affect, and television producers continue to give these swindlers air time, the majority of which is given over to idiotic claims and play-acting by the school than to the complete and utter failure to make good on these claims).
Comparing the claims of a group to their methods for achieving those claims gives us a neutral ground to approach this issue from- and skirt the “traditional” trap. A group may be bursting with a tradition, but by keeping in mind that tradition is dependent from group to group, and evaluating them with the scheme above, we can start to look at intent as the key factor with validity as a metric. For example, if a group claims that it teaches a highly lethal form of self defense, yet the students are never exposed to any contact, infrequent or no pad work, infrequent or highly complicit partner work, and are given dubious ideas (rising block against a baseball bat, ikken hisatsu, ki, etc.), it can be determined that practical self defense is not their intent, despite any claims otherwise or appeals to tradition., and their own training is not a valid way to achieve this goal.  Claims of tradition are effectively irrelevant at this level of evaluation, leaving us free to focus on the important aspects of our training: what are we doing, how are we doing it, why are we doing it, and does it work?

A Problem of Definitions

Over the past couple of years, an increasing level of conversation has developed amongst karate practitioners about what karate is. As practitioners of the fighting arts learn more about each other via books and the internet, and the rise of mixed martial arts has provided a yardstick for the superiority of this technique or that, the standard answers are becoming more and more inadequate. This process of reckoning is acutely noticeable on online discussion forums.  If you throw the question of “what is karate?” onto a discussion board, the replies will cover a very broad range of interpretations and practices. Some replies will take all facets of training and the contingencies of fighting into account and evaluate them carefully, while others will staunchly defend this major brand name or that as “the” keepers of correct tradition.” In an age where ideas and methods can be accessed at the click of a button and information is more available than at any other time in history, many karateka still insist on wearing blinders. Some who engage in these conversations become very distraught at the suggestion that their school of choice is not recognized by all as being the best (epistemic viciousness at its best), while others actively pursue new perspectives.

As troubling as these discussions can be for some, I find them to be heartening signs of the change that is starting to inundate the entrenched notions of what karate is and how we should be practicing it.  After years of dedicated training many, are starting to look outside the narrow boundaries of their style or school for a fuller picture, while others have already made that leap and landed firmly on ground that they were told did not exist.  The notion that Karate is one thing that is for sale from a few legitimate torch bearers is no longer the status quo. To be specific, the Western practice of karate that is emerging outside of the large organizations is a reflection of the aspects that Western practitioners regard as vital, and these are not necessarily the same as those mandated by Japanese organizations (or those modeled on them). A few signals of this paradigm shift have been pointed out by various writers, namely:

-Western values and educational methods are beginning to replace those modeled on Japanese ones (particularly the ones that exist in concept, but not practice) within the pedagogical and cultural frameworks;

-training methods and prioritization openly reflect individual groups or practitioners’ recognition of effective skills for managing and surviving violent behavior, instead of relying on organizationally prescribed content;

-motivated by the rise of MMA and reality-based self defense, practitioners are no longer content with thin rationalizations for what are essentially Budo or sport-derived training methods taught as self-defense (heavy emphasis on repetition of air basics for character development, point sparring as real fighting, accepting daft kata applications at face value, etc.)

-the belief, either stated or unspoken, that Japanese teachers, organizations and methods are superior to any others is vanishing

Invariably, people on all sides of this conversation will explain their practice as “traditional karate” to distinguish their practice from others that they find to be unrepresentative. However, this is where the conversation becomes infinitely murkier rather than clearer. It’s hard enough to nail down what karate is among the diverse and different practices being called by the same name. But as a way to distinguish among them, tradition is an albatross of a term that hangs around our collective necks in that it doesn’t clarify the discussion, but invokes a vague retinue of ideas that all fall under the heading of “traditional.” The problematic nature of this term becomes obvious when we consider that many groups claim to practice traditional karate, yet what constitutes their tradition is specific to that group only. This is compounded further by the fact that most of what is considered traditional within karate is less than 100 years old, and the most identifiable features are simply artifacts of organization (gi, belts, dojo, Japanese terminology, bowing ceremonies, tournaments, the stilted “3 K’s” pedagogy). Further, these artifacts and traditions are a product of the Japanese cultural influence on Okinawan arts, and in many cases the Okinawan cultural content has been almost entirely purged- is that a lesser tradition? Are we to believe that the newer approaches (which are heavily built around competitive values) are more valid traditions than the ones that they have supplanted? And what of the hybrid approaches that address one of karate’s central tenets, self defense, with practicality instead of magical thinking- are they less “traditional” than mainstream organizations?

There are innumerable groups out there training in very comprehensive programs that address very practical self defense skills, as well as supportive training drawn from the sports science field and psychology. Ironically enough, these “non-traditional” groups are incorporating the subject areas that were historically part of Okinawan karate. Meanwhile, a large organization claims that it is the “keeper of karate’s highest tradition” or something equally inane, and in doing so dismisses all others out of hand. These groups often identify themselves directly with some tradition or founder, and make their claims at exclusivity despite the relative youth of their approach. But exactly what is their tradition? Often, these claims are made alongside the admittance that the original founder would not have approved of the direction that the organization has taken his karate. In the same sentence however, the further claim will be made that the organization has “improved” the old style karate, yet the product that they are offering is still more traditional than any other! To put it simply, as soon as a “traditional” group denounces practices of another group, the group in question can claim to be part of a different, perhaps more illustrious tradition, traced all the way back down to Boddhidharma (the origins of this particular fictional claim lay in works of Chinese fiction; see Kennedy and Guo’s “Chinese Martial Arts Manuals: An Historical Survey” for an excellent discussion). Yet if every “traditional” group claims lineage with the same historical figures or circumstances, the attempt to define “tradition” becomes hopelessly reductive.

Tradition as a stumbling block

Where attempts to define traditional karate fall flat, history can fill in some of the gaping blanks. Historically, the learning of self defense capabilities alongside personal development (and arguably, societal benefit) have long been attached to karate practices. At the broadest, karate is exactly “an empty handed self-defense art” or “Weaponless art of self defense” as the name itself implies.  Any empty-handed tradition could arguably fall under that heading, regardless of national origin. At a narrower end, we could say that only empty-handed arts from Okinawa or Japan compose the traditional karate family; narrower still, only arts from the Okinawan family. However, the only standard in karate is change, especially change in response to adoption by a new culture. For those of us who love the idea of doing “Japanese” or “Okinawan karate” (whatever that may mean), the label is largely defined by a cultural element of the pursuit. In some ways that is not too different from participation in historical anachronism, or at the extreme, LARPing (and that does not overshadow or invalidate the technical content being practiced, although it certainly does in many cases). For those of us who are more interested in non-culturally specific elements, the “empty handed self-defense art” categorization is still appropriate, but the term “traditional” needs to go.

The paradox of dealing in tradition as a distinguishing feature is that we can end up with practitioners at very different ends of the spectrum from each other, embracing or discarding various practices and artifacts, yet both maintaining that they are practicing “traditional karate.”

In this light, it seems more appropriate to say that what we have are a wide variety of traditions, not any one tradition that we can point to as “the most traditional karate.”Whatever that karate looked like, it simply does not exist anymore, and no amount of reconstructing or lineage tracing can make us practitioners of it. I appreciate that there are groups that are very proud of the fact that they are doing things just like they were taught by their teacher, who did them just like their teacher, etc.- but it is still not the same karate as someone practiced 100 or 200 years ago. The reason is simple: conditions are no longer the same as 100 or 200 years ago, so the art will not be an exact replication. And really, why should it be? If karate is a living art that’s only historical constant has been adaptation to changing times, social climates and cultures, then it follows that the form it takes is highly malleable. The outward appearance is a reflection of the content.

In the end, people are the deciding factor as to what is retained or discarded from their practice of karate, or in the case of teachers and students, what ideas are presented as tradition; tradition can not exist independently of people. The traditions that we currently have from this process can be macrocosmic or microcosmic- they might extend to thousands of practitioners, or just a handful. The JKA is one tradition. Kenkyukai Uechi Ryu is a tradition. IOGKF Goju Ryu is another tradition. The fat guy teaching a bunch of kids gymnastic role-playing is another tradition. The guy in a hoodie teaching self defense in a garage gym to a handful of students is teaching another tradition. There may be some or no overlap. In all cases, it is up to the leaders and students of the group to establish what elements constitute that group’s tradition.

But that still does not help us distinguish between what we are comfortable calling traditional karate, and what makes us cringe. To clarify the issue, some advocate the use of “intent” to classify practices as being traditional or otherwise. Intent is usually described as the motivating purpose behind training. With intent as a deciding factor, it becomes easier to cleave through some of these confusing arguments and distinctions. But a group that does 90% air training and tournament sparring can still insist that they are training with the intent to be lethal fighters, while a group of people from eclectic training backgrounds might focus more on partner work and drills than on kihon, and make the same claim. How do we distinguish between the two in a way that is objective and accurate?


Validity and Intent
There is a big difference among groups that might all be calling themselves karate. I don’t like it when someone assumes that what I do is the same as their kid’s McDojo afterschool daycare thing, or that I will automatically hold them in esteem because they wear a starched white gi, use Japanese terminology, have a crisp down block and shout “Osu!” at each breath. It may be karate, but it is not what I do- and what I do may make others feel the same way. So how do we resolve how these groups fit into the loose scheme of “karate”? While all out syle-bashing can be counterproductive, it is nonetheless valid, acceptable and very necessary to distinguish the fat guy teaching gymnastics from the garage dojo from the major organization- but not by falling back on the usual argument of “we are more traditional because…” The garage sensei may be teaching something that is just as valid (or more) as the major org, while the McDojo guy is totally invalid to both.

That gives us a term to fixate on: valid. How can we decide what claims are valid or not, and reconcile that with the idea of intent as a major distinguishing factor? To do so productively, we must move away from reliance on concepts of tradition, and especially notions of karate as expounded by commercial organizations; it must be remembered that at the most basic level, such groups are concerned with making money from a dedicated membership who is ‘buying’ their version of karate. In the end, the practices of individual dojo, instructors and their students need to be examined if we are to objectively and accurately classify the intent of their practice. Based on experiences as a visiting student in several dojo with different affiliations, I suggest that this can be done with a simple analysis:

To assess the validity of a group’s stated intent for training, compare:

A) The claims that a group/teacher makes about the goals/benefits of training with


B) How realistically the training methods will enable students realize the goals/benefits;


C) If A and B are in harmony, the group is valid in relation to its own claims.

If A and B are out of synch, they are invalid according to their own claims. They may still be labeled as “karate”, but there is a firm point from which to distinguish between the intents behind different groups’ training methods. In cases where the relationship of methodology to goals is disputed, simple physical testing of the representative practitioner’s own claims should make the disconnect clear, especially if this involves participants from outside of the school in question (the numerous clips of investigators thwarting the attempts of George Dilman and the like to use chi/ki energy to affect them are amusing examples of this process in action. Sadly, the students and teachers of the school being so tested always have a range of absurd excuses for why they failed to produce any affect.)


Comparing the claims of a group to their methods for achieving those claims gives us a neutral ground to approach this issue from- and skirt the “traditional” trap. A group may be bursting with a tradition, but by keeping in mind that tradition is dependent from group to group, and evaluating them with the scheme above, we can start to look at intent as the key factor. For example, if a group claims that it teaches a highly lethal form of self defense, yet the students are never exposed to any contact, infrequent or no pad work, infrequent or highly complicit partner work, and are given dubious ideas (rising block against a baseball bat, etc., ikken hisatsu), it can be determined that practical self defense is not their intent, despite any claims otherwise or appeals to tradition. Claims of tradition are effectively irrelevant at this level of evaluation
, leaving us free to focus on the important aspects of our training: what are we doing, how are we doing it, why are we doing, and does it work?

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3 responses to “Traditional Karate: Stumbling Block, or Useful Distinction?

  1. The word “tradition” is a stumbling block in itself-

    if Ng Mui was “traditional”- she would have stayed with doing White Crane and no Wing Chun would have been created.

    if Funakoshi was traditional- Shotokan would look more like Shorin Ryu- and Nakayama’s Best Karate series would include kobudo ( I am exaggerating).

    if Kano was traditional- he would be teaching Kito ryu.

    if the founders of Tai Shing Pek Kwar, Hung Gar, Fut Gar, Jow Gar, Bak Mei, etc. were traditional- they would be still doing something else and would not create their systems.

    if Mas Oyama was traditional- no Kyokushinkai.

    if Yagyu Munenori was traditional- he would be only a Kage ryu swordsman and never would have come up with the New Kage ryu (Shinkage ryu) school.

    All the founders of reputable systems/traditions crosstrained and adopted their martial skills to their needs and/or their students’ needs. We as martial artists need to do the same, so we can focus on one of the 5 Focuses of Martial Arts (see Marc Macyoung’s article on No Nonsense Self Defense .com )

    Even in Japan in Karate there is change- the Ashihara, Enshin, Seidokaikan and Daidojuku systems have more of a self defense focus than simply a method for physical education and forging of the spirit.

    Even karate’s definition of an emptyhanded art can be challenged- many Okinawan styles have kobudo as an intrinsic part of the training.

  2. Pingback: Basic Physical Training Concepts for Karate Practitioners « TKRIblog

  3. Pingback: Expertise in the Fighting Arts- Some Basic Notes | Fight Sciences Research Institute blog

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