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What is Traditional Karate?

Karate came to be a Traditional budo so that the indigenous Okinawan fighting art of Tode would be acceptable to the Imperial Japanese Military and therefore would be adopted by the mainland population. Otherwise due to its Chinese cultural background it would have been driven underground into obscurity.

' Traditional ' Karate, implies authenticity even superiority over other schools of karate; continuity of a founding masters teachings, unchanging correctness and unquestionable authority.

In the West this includes adopting a code of quasi Japanese WW2 military conduct, dress, hierarchy, language and social interaction inside and in some cases outside the dojo. Students are encouraged to follow the groups rules, reinforce group behavior and elevate the leaders into unquestionable dominance.

From an outsiders perspective Traditional Karate might be considered a cult where its leaders brainwash its sincere but naive followers. Its claims include being able to defeat assailants, improve confidence and even self enlightenment, all for a fee of course.

It should be understood that many teachers of Asian martial arts consider modern day Karate to be very rudimentary and unsophisticated. With an emphasis of drilling basic techniques relying on strength with little depth or martial knowledge.

What is the core of Traditional Karate?

Its primary raison etre is in its conformity and structured curriculum to teach groups of people in large numbers. With everyone acting, looking and performing the same, a standard could be set against which the students could be measured.

In addition it also provides a sense of belonging, projects a positive self image and provides physical exercise especially in the West were we are becoming increasingly sedentary. Importantly it is also a safe outlet for aggression without the intention to inflict serious injury on our training partners.

Purists would contend that Traditional Karate follow unchanged teachings back to its founder through a traceable and direct lineage from Okinawan master to pupil, so for Goju Ryu this would be Chojun Miyagi. Practise should focus specifically on Kihon, Kata and pre arranged Kumite. Legitimacy requires that an Okinawan or Japanese master is the head of the school.

Much of what is traditional teaching is restricted to the physical repetition of Kihon and Kata.

Concentrating solely on the practise of outward appearance without understanding leads us away from the essence of Karate not to it. And the essence is; that true understanding requires form but is ultimately formless

The ability to learn initially does require form i.e. copying in one way, so that we can memorize and repeat. This is Tradition. A structured approach is a benefit up to a point after which it can become a restraint, strangling creativity.

Kata should inspire not constrain. A style is the emphasis of how teachings are passed on like a river that flows from teacher to pupil. Should the style become more important than the teachings then the style becomes a tradition that is an empty straight jacket.

What is the living tradition?

The outward expression of Karate is passed on from one generation to another by copying the Kata of the teacher. One of the tenets of Karate is to pass on the kata of our teachers unchanged.

Sadly though many kata have changed immensely since the second world war with the introduction of high kicks, lower stances, stiff techniques and the use of excessive strength - in short its become an act. And its the very masters who often claimed to be traditional that were responsible for these changes, not through understanding, but through what is more visual or suited to tournament.

If you go no further though than mimicking your teachers, then you are preserving an empty tradition.

For a living tradition there must be original creation, requiring feeling, thinking and study practise.

Kata is not always performed the same, some times its a little softer, harder, faster, slower. The performance should reflect how you feel on the inside and this is expressed throughout the whole body. Often beginners should practise with big movements to develop both the mechanics and feeling.

If you always use maximum effort and strength then this is brute force. Practise the kata in kumite learning to modify the technique, understanding its strengths and weaknesses. How you relate to the opponent determines how you react. Learn to empathize with your opponent, don't force your technique to work, relax, feel and let it work. Effortless effort is a maxim worth employing.

Question your teachers and yourself.

How are stances used in combat, when is a specific posture used, how do you influence others with your intention, how do you move, how do you make it work? The questions are endless

You may be seen as a heretic when you challenge, but if you want to grow and understand you have to do it. Otherwise the efforts of the past masters were surely wasted, unless you think that they really just wanted robotic clones.

Remember there is no one best style, to think that is to show your ignorance. Ultimately all Karate is the same as we all obey the same laws of nature, principles and concepts of body mechanics and psychology.

Never stop questioning searching and learning.
Sodokan Goju Karate Association
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Mike Clark 1997-2005. Reproduction of material on this site is not permitted