Monday, February 16, 2009

Modern Karate

By Matthew Schafer

Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved

In some of my writings I have made reference to “modern karate” and some people have inquired as to what I meant. Basically, modern karate is what passes for karate today. Most people don’t realize how karate, which I’m using as a generic term for martial arts, has changed over the years.

Originally all martial arts were simply methods of combat and the number one reason that people studied them was to learn how to seriously injure or kill someone who was trying to do the same thing to you. Karate started out as incredibly brutal and “dirty”. If you go back 150 years and prior you’d see karate being taught and practiced very differently. The focus of everything was to cause injuries to people. You didn’t throw a punch for exercise or recreation, you threw it because you wanted to use your first to drive your bodyweight through someone’s head because they were trying to injure or kill you and you wanted to stop them by injuring or killing them first.

Then, if you go to the late 1800’s to around 1950 or so you’d see karate change quite a bit because of three things: 1.) More efficient social order was imposed in most areas of the orient as well as the US which meant that your skills in karate where a little less important to day-to-day survival, 2.) Firearms became a lot more available so other self-defense methods took a backseat in a large parts of the world, and 3.) Because of the first two reasons those that made a living teaching karate had to start marketing it a little differently. Social order meant that violence was down so people were less concerned with hand-to-hand skills and since guns could be purchased, although at this time only by those with money, people who were really concerned about violence could now carry a pistol. Karate schools had to go from a marketing campaign built on survival to one built on recreation, spiritual development, and in quite a few cases gaining magic powers.

Karate in a survival environment need to be incredibly brutal and lethal but in an environment where most people practice it for recreation suddenly strikes to the eyes and throat become not as acceptable. Because of this, techniques that were more flashy became the focus and the study of anatomy became less important.

Going forwards from 1950 to present you’ll see that karate has become more and more soft, non-lethal, less contact is being made, and to many people it is just an activity to entertain children. You go into a karate school today is like a children’s game of tag. Today the basic techniques of karate are still there but the teachings of how to use them are all but gone.

I recall reading an article years ago about an old karate instructor from Okinawa who came to the US for some karate related reason. In the interview that he did with the magazine (I think it was either “Karate Illustrated” or “Budo”) he said that he yet see any real karate in this country. He said that in Okinawa karate was much more about the principles involved with how you do things but here in the US as long as someone’s arm shoots out in the air we call that a punch. In Okinawa one of the foundational principles of karate is called the “double whip” (as well as a bunch of other names) that when properly used adds a great deal of speed and power to your blows as well as makes them harder to see by your opponent, but he never saw that while in the US and I have still to see it in the over 20 years that I’ve been practicing. In the US we have the “throw your arms and legs in the air” part but because things have become so soft, commercialized, and politically correct we’ve lost the real combative principles that make karate “work”.

Tournaments became such a big deal that most styles of karate pretty much stopped teaching things that didn’t apply to competition. Punches and backfists are taught but how to correctly use a spearhand isn’t. A spearhand is another one of my pet peeves. You cannot take a traditional spearhand strike and make it work unless you spend years devolving your finger tips, hand, and writs to make them impact resistant. If you throw a spearhand to someone’s lower throat you can cause them to choke and you just might take them out of the fight but you can easily jam a finger or bend a finger back and break it.

If you actually want to use a spearhand strike you’d better grab your bucket of rice and start driving your fingers to the bottom 100 times a day, yet, karate schools still teach it…sort of.

In most schools any technique that is not applicable and legal in competition is not covered, at least not in depth, and often those techniques have been abandoned long ago. The study of anatomy in karate is all but gone. In older times karate and medicine when virtuously hand in hand because you needed to know medicine in case you hurt someone with you techniques, and in a large way to learn one it to learn the other. Personally I don’t think any martial art can be learned without a functional knowledge of anatomy.

When I started learning karate I was very fortunate because I was taught what I consider to be traditional karate. All those weird fists and finger strikes that you see in karate textbooks were the largest part of my training. Today they’re not taught because you cannot use them in competition but 150 years ago, or so, they were the primary weapons of the martial arts. My instructor had a human shaped punching bag that he made out of couch cushions, sand bags, and duct tape and I’d have to spend hours standing there hitting it in various targets with finger strikes, tiger claws, eagle claws, leopard fists, one knuckle strikes, four knuckle strikes, and others.

After studying karate for a year or two I was surprised as hell the first time I saw a Taekwondo class. I can remember standing there at about 8 years old and thinking, “What the hell?” I learned karate, not necessarily in the way but in the manner which karate was learned for the vast majority of its existence. For me karate was very “dirty”, brutal, and vicious and it worked like a charm but everyone else seemed to be doing it in a way that looked more like ballet. I considered, and I still do, that karate is digging my thumb into someone eye, not standing 6 feet away from someone and throwing a punch or a kick

So when I talk about “modern karate” that is what I mean. There is nothing necessarily wrong with modern karate but it is not what I choose to study.

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