So my 33rd year in karate is coming to a close. It has been an exciting year - one of modulated ups and downs. However, it was a year in which once again, I focused on karate and Kobudo. Watching the unfolding of discussions on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, there is excellent research being done to shed light into those areas of this tradition which millions of us worldwide do.
Nevertheless, in essence, what I do not see emerging is a shared meaning of what is karate. Aside from the use of uniform, itself open to interpretation, and general use of Japanese terminology, what constitutes karate remains open to the interpretation of the individual instructor. That the industry of karate is a multibillion-dollar one that remains, for the most part, unregulated no doubt contributes to the opaqueness of the term.
Below, I informally present a few ideas around sign-post we may use to identify what constitutes authentic karate, as defined by historical context. Given the inclusion of karate in the Olympics (and its exclusion from future ones), the end of this years seems appropriate to consider the above.
The key markers are:
Karate must be grounded in self-defence. Any form that deviates beyond this principal as a founding stone cannot be considered karate. While testing one's mettle through competition may be helpful, it cannot be the essence of what is done.
Karate should have its roots traceable to Okinawa. Karate is not only a form of self-defence; it is also a cultural artefact of Okinawan history. Any system which does not have a lineage to Okinawa cannot indeed be considered karate. It may be a highly effective form of self-defence or sport such as Japanese Kempo, kickboxing or other, but cannot be considered 'karate'.
Karate must be a focus on empty hands and as such, should utilize all aspects of what empty hands can entail and do, including throws, chokes etc. An over-focus on the clenched fist is not historical karate as it limits the ability of one to self-defence.
Part of the karate experience must involve Kobudo. Historically the two were unified and supplementary.
Kata must be utilized as a primary vehicle for enabling self-defence learning. However, caution here and also a bit of controversy as kata must not merely be taught as a static form. Instead, its underlying principles and individuals nuances must be explored by student and teacher together.
You will note that I have left off 'essential' items such as character development, use of Keiko go or even a dan system. As these were later additions or, in the case of character development, utilized to develop an individual perspective defined by space/place, they may not be essential to karate as a form of self-defence.
Of course, as a Catholic, a teacher and a human being, I believe all we do should develop our character and as such karate can serve as a vehicle. However, such power given to karate must be done cautiously, especially when the teacher has exposure to the young or the easily influenced.
From my years in karate I know this list can expand, contract etc. but what I am proposing is to start a conversation where we can at least begin to consider karate as a discipline worthy of academic exploration and consideration. To do this, we must first define our terms.
I wish you all a healthy, balanced and joyous 2020. Keep your foot on the floor and your Kiai active!
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan