The Future of Karate

Karateka often discuss the past--how things were done when they started, what their lineage is, what past masters said, etc. This retrospective process is very valuable, because it provides guidance and inspiration for our own journey in the martial arts. As the proverb "On-Ko-Chi-Shin" tells us, we should "study the old to understand the new." But just what is "the new," exactly? Is it the Japanese budo approach to karate that took off in the 1950's? Maybe the aspiring Olympic sport of WKF competition karate? Or is it something else, entirely? Personally, I believe we are experiencing a Karate Renaissance, but to understand what I mean, you must understand what has led up to this moment.

For the better part of a century, karate has been on a fairly steady path toward sport-oriented training, tailored toward large groups of students. It started with the introduction of karate into the Okinawan school system, with the government's expectation that it would help prepare students for military service. That was expanded when karate was taken to mainland Japan, and taught to athletic young men whose expectations of martial arts were ingrained by exposure to competitive budo systems like sumo, kendo, and judo. They then taught that karate to Western servicemen after World War II, who took it with them and helped spread it all over the world. Certainly, there were still karateka practicing the older methods during this time, but they were not nearly as widespread. Additionally, some karateka changed the way they taught to fit this new expectation, in order to cash in on a new potential source of income, which was sorely needed after the devastation of the war.

In the 1960's and 70's, karate really began to be defined by kumite competitions, particularly in the West. Different rulesets were developed by different organizations, depending on how they wanted to approach fighting, but they were all fairly similar. This eventually split competitive karate into two camps--kickboxing, and point fighting. The kickboxing camp generally consists of fighting styles that incorporate kicks and punches, and they do not typically stop matches until time runs out or a competitor is knocked out. The point fighting camp generally emphasizes short engagements by stopping the match to award points for techniques that were landed with good technique. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but neither is really representative of old-style karate.

These camps still exist, today, with various Kyokushin organizations bearing the flag for the kickboxing camp, and the WKF leading the charge for the point fighting camp. With all this competition going on, it's hard to get people to notice old-style karate, because it is nowhere near as glamorous. There are no medals or trophies to be won, or any other external markers of success. That said, with the success of mixed martial arts competition since the early 90's, things are changing.

Effectiveness is probably the most important aspect of martial arts. Of course, competition is still the best way to showcase effectiveness, because the glamor of it attracts attention. Even outside of competition, though, people are looking for different things than they used to. They want to be prepared for physical conflict in all its forms, and they also want to develop themselves as people. Old-style karate can provide this, but it's up to us to showcase it. People like Vince Morris and Iain Abernethy have started working toward that end, and even Okinawan masters like Taira Masaji have opened their teachings to the wider world.

Thanks to the Internet, we now have access to sources of information all over the globe, and we have the ability to share knowledge to far more people than ever before. Even now, there are websites and online forums full of karateka who are training in and promoting the old ways, while embracing the value of pressure testing advocated by MMA and "reality-based self defense" systems. In a way, this is a return to the approach of masters like Motobu Choki, who regularly tested their karate against others--not for glory, but to improve their art.

It takes a lot of dedicated time and effort to really develop the skills of old Okinawan karate, which often leads sport martial artists to dismiss it as unrealistic or ineffective. Despite this, you can watch MMA, boxing, judo, sumo, etc., and regularly see skills and techniques found in karate. MMA, in particular, is a fantastic proving ground for many karate methods, as it has the most open ruleset of any competitive combat sport. I believe that as MMA progresses, more fighters will seek to develop the skills found in the old ways--things like tactile sensitivity, limb control, standing locks, small surface strikes, balance disruption, short power, etc. When they find those things in karate, we will have an opportunity to really showcase the depth of our arts to the public.

Meanwhile, it is important that those of us who are currently practicing the old ways try to pass them on to others, and keep sharing material publicly whenever possible. Sport karate is still going strong, but I don't believe it is the future. The general public--and prospective karate students--have seen its limitations, and for the most part they are looking for something more. For now, they are looking to MMA, and its most popular components. In the future, I believe that old-style karate can make a strong case for itself. While it is not ideally suited to competitive fighting, I believe that its incorporation into competitive fighting may lead more students to it that are willing to put in the work necessary to pursue the old ways. The hard training, depth of study, and personal development involved are not for everyone, but with the world growing more connected with each passing day, I feel that there are ever more people who can benefit from it.

 

This article was written by Noah Legel of karateobsession.com, he is an avid karateka and scholar who exemplifies the idea of "bunbu ryudo," the way of the pen and the sword. Check out his website and Youtube channel for great karate content and very insightful discussion.   

This article was written by Noah Legel of karateobsession.com, he is an avid karateka and scholar who exemplifies the idea of "bunbu ryudo," the way of the pen and the sword. Check out his website and Youtube channel for great karate content and very insightful discussion.