Thursday 2 November 2023

Karate 'Trends'

Old school Unsu Kata. Not as polished, but with every waza executed with effective intent.

One major piece of advice—to those seeking 武道空手 (budo karate)— that ‘I can’t emphasize enough’ is: “…to follow the 伝統的基本 (traditional kihon) as opposed to ‘trends’”. This especially pertains to sports kata and sports kumite.


This does not mean that technique does not evolve but, rather, (traditionally) it has and continues to evolve based on improved effectiveness/efficiency. Indeed, and needless to say, many waza have reached their optimum form. In these cases, increases or maintenance of form and/or explosive power will be the objective in training.


Also, for higher level karateka, the kihon changes in form based on their individual physiques and a multitude of inevitability variable attributes. One such example is the foundational ukewaza. Depending on say, the length of a person's arm, they might alter the distance of their elbow from their body.


While the usual form is having the elbow one fist width from the body, this should be slightly altered by Dan grades if a more effective form can be used.  Otherwise, the standard version “the reference form”, should be kept. Such an alteration by higher ranks must be evaluated through kumite and impact training.


Some instructors have very ‘set’ ideas about what is right or wrong. This is because their understanding is only basic. Everyone should know that here in Japan there are two versions of karate within large organizations. The ‘general version’ where everything is set, which they make the masses do. And the ‘elite version’, which is done by the professional instructors and personalized/adapted for them individually.


This is the first reason why you see differences between the different famous instructors. Yes, they teach the ‘general version’—and teach it as gospel; however, they themselves practice in the ‘elite’ manner.


The second reason you see differences is “the original research that each instructor does”, but this is a natural continuation of the ‘elite version’. In fact, the ‘personalization of kihon for the individual’ fuels optimal research.


A danger in these regards is where one begins researching without sufficient budo skill; thereby, resulting in the practice/training and (in the case of those instructing) teaching of ineffective karate.


For karateka who come for my training, I do not teach the ‘general version’; instead, everyone I teach receives specialized training unique for them—based on the tradition passed down to me here in Japan. This methodology functions to optimize the karate skill of trainees immediately and bolster their long-term improvement. Ironically, this has bought our training back to the way karate was original taught in Okinawa, whilst not deviating from the improvements made through the evolution of Shotokan-Ryu.


To reiterate, if you follow the trends like ‘the latest way of moving in tournaments’, you will inevitably move away from the traditional way; that is Budo Karate.


Two concrete examples from kata:

Movement 42 of 観空小 (Kanku Sho)

挙動   右前屈立   左手首後方中段掛受   右拳右腰    左脚立 左掌に右中段三日月蹴   回転飛び   右脚前屈   腕立て

Migi zenkutsu dachi, Hidari tekubi koho chudan kake uke, Uken migi koshi, Hidari ashi dachi, Hidari sho ni migi chudan mikazuki geri, Kaiten tobi, Migi ashi zenkutsu, Ude tate


This jump is often done high or even with a tobi yoko-geri kekomi added! This MUST be low and sharp to be optimally applicable.



Movement one of 岩鶴 (Gankaku)

右後屈立   両甲上段側面合わせ受

Migi kokutsu dachi, Ryoko jodan sokumen awase uke


This waza has dropped to chudan by the majority of competitors, and in doing so has lost all of its meaning. And let’s not get into all of the 上段横蹴り蹴込み (jodan yoko-geri kekomi) replacing the 蹴上げ (keage), which again, invalidates the original intent and corresponding effectiveness of these waza sequences (in correspondence with uraken jodan yokomawashi uchi).


One concrete example from kumite:

間合 (Maai)

Sports Karate ‘multiple point sparring’ distancing comes primarily to mind. The 間合 (Maai) is not related to real karate as it is not optimal for delivering blows with maximum impact.


By merely reaching the target one can get a point, furthermore, this also allows the attacker to ‘escape being scored on’ more easily. In sum, the Kumite becomes not Kumite but a highly athletic game of tag. The major problem with this is that it programs karateka to fight worse in a real fight which is, (needless to say and not understatedly) highly problematic. Actually, this is most probably the main reason why some people disregard karate as an effective martial art: and rightfully so, in regards to sports karate ‘tag’ (whoops… I meant ‘kumite’). Overall, and on top of sport karate being useless, it also severely sucks as a sport for spectators.


Now here’s another problem due to trends… Even if clubs and individuals don’t compete, they often still follow the trends of this ‘fighting style’. Unless it is old school JKA style Shobu-Ippon, it has no relationship to reality. Sports karate kumite is not only a boring sport with no relationship to budo, but embarrassing for karate as a whole. 


Of course, there is nothing wrong with competition (traditional competition is great, again, i.e. - old school JKA rules); nonetheless, and even in such quality competitions, one must avoid sacrificing budo karate kihon and following the trends of sports karate. Allow 'the traditional budo karate kihon' and 'effectiveness (through testing)' to guide you. In this way, rather than aimlessly following trends you will be a trailblazer and maximize your karate skill and ongoing technical development. You will also, without trying, achieve the Japanese look of techniques, which will set you apart from (what I call) the ‘plastic form’, which is all-to-common now.


Some may choose to follow the ‘sports karate’ path and all the ‘latest trends’ it spreads; however, this road goes in a different direction from the way of (Bu)—both (Do) and (Jutsu). In my case as a practitioner and teacherand for the International Karate Shotokan—"BUDO/BUJUTSU KARATE IS THE ONLY KARATE". Some claim they can simultaneously walk both paths; nevertheless, I’ve never met anyone who has done this and optimized their skills. Nor had Asai Tetsuhiko Sensei, Osaka Yoshiharu Sensei, Nakamura Masamitsu Sensei, et al. This is because these ‘WAYS’ are technically like oil and water. 

This doesn’t sit well in this current world where ‘everything must be accepted’. In this regard, I adamantly believe that budo karate shines a light on past values and understandings which are no longer ‘the trend’.


押忍! — André

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2023).

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