In my last post, I discussed the need for karate to define its terms for us to have global conversations beyond styles. In this blog, I would like to propose that we also should refine our terms when we talk about eras in karate. What some folks call traditional karate, others call modern. I offer that currently, we are in the third phase of karate. What I propose, below, is a timeline grounded in the Okinawa origins of karate. Moreover, I combine Okinawan Kobudo and karate under the heading karate as formerly according to most researchers they were a unified practice.
Pre-1905 - the classical period. Currently, the historiography of karate in this period is most in need of research — researchers such as Joe Swift, Andreas Quast, Hokama Tetsuhiro and Patrick McCarthy continue to delve into this period bravely, however, the lack of written sources makes for a swamp. While oral testimony (supposedly) originating from this period is rife, the challenge lies in verification.
During this period Kobudo and karate were for a select few, drawn from the upper class. This period is marked by moral compasses rather than 'rules' as if it works use it, appears to be the norm. Evidence draws from the Bubishi (the mid-1800s) and some written sources such as explore by Quast in his book Oni Oshiro and Swift in his recent book on Itotsu. The classical period witnesses cross-pollination of some Chinese, East Asian and mainland Japanese self-defence paradigms with indigenous Okinawan. Where, when, why and how this pollination took is greater need of research, but most likely it will fall to anthropologist to shed light on this era. Hopefully, in future with on-going work and development, this era can be meaningfully subdivided.
1905 - now - Modern karate. The emergence of karate marks this era into mainstream education and consumption. Drawing from the field of epistemology, this could be considered a structuralist period. Karate clothing, gradings and tournament parameters emerge. Rather than the reserve of an elite class, this is karate of mass consumption. This era is one of rules and standards and is specifically designed to make karate more of a sport or cultural recreation. These last 2 movements no doubt save karate (and other classical budo) from obliteration. The culmination of this era is the 2020 Olympics where, for a short point in time, karate is witnessed as a world sport.
1995 - now - Post-structural or post-modernist era. The watershed here is McCarthy's Tuttle publication of the Bubishi. This publication makes the text available to a global audience for the first time. It confirms for many what they had instinctively known - the essence of karate and Kobudo lie in understanding its kata.
The energy of this period is a maturity of karate practitioners, a questioning of previous paradigms and a delving into understanding the blueprints of self-defence as embodied by kata. This era continues to shed light into the unlit passages of karate; however, the centre continues to hold.
I believe using such macro-eras will help us further delineate and meaningfully discuss as move karate and Kobudo into the place they deserve as precious, cultural artefacts which continue to evolve and contribute to the times within which they exist.
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan