What’s in a term

Traditional Karate

If you’re a Karate Mom or Dad, a student, instructor or a friend of a friend in the martial arts you’ve probably heard the term “traditional karate”. What is traditional karate anyway? Is it like a traditional holiday that’s passed down through time, traditional wedding practices, traditional IRA or traditional education? Was there a particular “custom” that someone or a group started a long time ago that became tradition? If so, who’s tradition was chosen to be considered “traditional” and who made that decision?

You’ll probably agree that it must be important, have merit or at least bear some sort of value because that term is peppered everywhere on the internet, in magazines and books where martial arts and karate are mentioned. How can you be sure that each time you hear it, read it or see it, that the matter it’s attached to or referring to is worthy of the status “traditional”?

Some martial arts schools own their “non-traditional” status – those schools are straight up honest about being a self-defense, martial arts fighting and oftentimes fitness schools. I applaud them and respect them for teaching what they do and owning what they do while being proud and honest with themselves and to their patrons and students. Will their students learn how to defend themselves, very likely yes; will the they work hard, absolutely; will they get advanced in rank, most often yes; will they be proud and gain self-confidence, certainly.

So why then is the term “Traditional” karate so often used by so many schools? Why not just say that you teach karate, or you take karate or practice martial arts, rather than traditional karate?

What’s so special about traditional

Generally, when we think of something traditional, we feel something. It’s more than just a term or a thought, it often elicits unconscious an emotion that can bring about the feeling of comfort, security and esteemed principle.

When friends and families get together during the holidays, they often have traditions that everyone can assume will take place. Some traditions are welcome and are anticipated with warm smiles and eagerness, while others many participants would probably like to see forgotten or lost because they are harsh and may cause us to bite our tongues or suffer a consequence if we don’t.

Many who seek to learn karate or take karate classes are unfamiliar with the rich history of “karate”, the martial art that developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom known as the art of te (also known as Tode, Okinawa-Te, To-De the Okinawa martial arts as it was taught in schools); this was a Ryukyuan Martial Art that developed under a great influence of Chinese Kung Fu as it was thought to have been introduced on Okinawa by Taoist and Buddhist Monks. The Okinawa karate culture that’s had a lasting imprint on today’s traditional karate was likely influenced by the cultural exchange when trade relations were established between three kingdoms of Okinawa; Chuzan, Hokuzan and Nanzan (which unified to form the Ryukuan Kingdom) and the Ming Dynasty of China. So how does this interpret to karate in today’s modern and contemporary world where traditions are ever-changing, lines are either blurred, clarified to be different than we once thought or simply being redefined?

Is tradition about culture?

Let’s talk about culture in a “traditional” karate instruction in or out of the dojo; the place where martial arts, karate or similar training takes place, a training hall, room or space. Since tradition is most often something that is passed down through time, I’ll start by unveiling a number customary values or philosophies from “old school” karate and martial art’s styles and their prominent practitioners or instructors and go back to times before and during the World War II era when these values, philosophies and schools were really starting to make their impact on Americans. The views and philosophies that were most well-regarded from their martial arts instruction and personal experiences would have been the impetus of the Master instructor’s rules or procedures which he would expect his students to follow. I also believe that there were unspoken or unrecorded practices and procedures of that time in part because they were simply a normal part of cultural behaviors and manners during those times in their respective communities.

The cultures that shaped traditions

Without allowing myself to get off topic by the incredible history behind the men and their styles that I’ll mention here, I will only include a brief explanation of who they are, followed by some information regarding philosophy regarding martial arts and training. My list is short, far from a complete list of influential Individuals and they are in no real particular order, as each deserves their place at the top of the lineage of their followers. I believe philosophies and characters of the following will shed some enlightenment regarding the cultures which greatly influenced the traditions that are so revered today.

Takahara Pēchin, born in 1683, from Southern Shuri in the Ryukyu Kingdom of Okinawa. He was a great warrior and student of Chatan Yara. It is said that he was the first to explain the principles of the way, “do” and the first instructor of Sakukawa “Tode” Kanga, who was known as the “Father of Okinawa Karate”. The principles are 1. The way (ijo) of compassion, humility and love 2. The laws (katsu) a complete understanding of the techniques and forms 3. Dedication (fo) the seriousness as it should be understood in practice and in combat. – complete translation: “One’s duty to himself and his fellow man”.

Master Gichin Funakoshi, born in Shuri in the Ryukyu Kingdom; credited as the “Father of Modern Karate” and the introduction of Karate to the Japanese mainland in 1922. A student of Sakukawa “Tode” Kanga, Funakoshi was thought to have a large part in changing the meaning of karate, to “empty hand” rather than its original meaning of “China hand” as it had been referred to in Okinawa. A well-educated man who trained in two well-known Okinawan karate styles, Shorei-ryu and Shorin-ryu and gained many students; a group of whom posted a sign above the entrance to his training hall that said Shotokan – meaning “house of Shoto”, kan being a hall or house and Shoto was his pen name which meant “waving pines”.

Two of most notable books written are, his autobiography, Karate-Do: My Way of Life and the other is a document that contains his philosophies of karate training. This is referred to as the Niju Kun, “Twenty Principles”. Within this document Funakoshi laid out 20 rules which he urged students of Shotokan, or any karateka to abide by in life “to become better human beings”; also 5 principals of the dojo, referred to as the Five Maxims of Karate. The 20 rules were concepts of humility, respect, patience, calmness and compassion and the five maxims regarding training, were to seek perfection of character, faithfulness, to endeavor to excel, to respect others and refrain from violent behavior. These were a clear reflection of the Okinawa culture, where caring and respect for others, including their ancestors and families were deeply rooted, and was influenced by the “Yuimaru” (meaning to help each other out) spirit.

Shotokan students would train in three areas kihon (basics), kata (forms) and Kimute (sparring), developing powerful technics and speed. Students would progress from basic techniques to more complicated and advanced techniques while advancing from beginner to advanced and expert levels.

Master Choki Motobu, Born in the Shuri Village in 1870. In 1932, Master Choki Motobu was part of a series of interviews that had been conducted with the purpose of safeguarding where modern karate was headed, they would determine that “karate must be practical and that all impractical theories must be abandoned”. Regarding his instruction, Choki stated that he was “scolded a great deal” and also mentioned that his instructor, named Sakuma from Shuri, taught him “a lot by complimenting me at times and scolding me at others”.

Motobu had a number of instructors, to name a few, Itosu Yasutsune (Anko), Matsumura Soken, and Matsumora from Tomari. His instructors taught practical, hard and fast techniques. In the interview, he said that “The essence of karate is to move gently or casually and to immediately hit the enemy when the opportunity presents itself. This is karate jissen, actual fighting.” Later his son Chosei, said of his father’s karate instruction “prevented him from bragging or promoting himself, instead, he let his actions speak for him”. Some of the principals that he was taught were laid out in a hand-written letter by Itosu which can be found as a photo in a book by Genwa Nakasone called “Karate-Do Taikan”. This letter included a list of 10 principles that outlined his views of how karate should be practiced which included a variety of concepts. Some were that karate was good for one’s health, should be learned slowly and practiced for years in order to discover the deeper principles of karate, to harden the body, hands and feet, training should be intense while also learning to preserve one’s energy, one should repeatedly train in techniques and learn explanations of those techniques, which would help one decide when and where to apply them, and that the purpose of karate is not just for one’s own benefit but to protect others and to avoid injury using hands a feet rather than simply to fight.

Master Chotoku Kyan, was also born in 1870 in the Shuri Village to Chofu Kyan the Chamberlain to the last King of Okinawa, Sho Tai who was exiled to Tokyo. After graduation from high school and living in Tokyo for 3 years, Chotoku moved back to Okinawa where he took karate lessons from a number of masters, some of which were Soken Matsumura, Itosu Yasutsune (Anko) and Tokumine. Chotoku Kyan was a student of Soken with Gichin Funakoshi at the time that Gichin travelled to Japan to introduce Karate.

Kyan stayed in Okinawa and continued to train and moved on to teach Shorin-ryu as he had learned rather than follow Funakoshi in popularizing karate as it transformed to a more modern sport. Kyan created the “Tode Research Center” and taught at a college and police station in the town of Kadena. He wrote a 3 chapter book called Kempo kaisetsu (Treatise about Fighting). Those three chapters were “History and Purpose of Tode”, “The Training Process Features”, and “The Fighting Features”. It is said that around 1930 Kyan detailed a set of kata (forms) that he said were “Seven Original Kata of the Ancient Style”.

Master Chojun Miyagi, born in 1888 in the Naha Village as Miyahi Matsu and belonging to the Shizoku class of Ryukyu nobility, was adopted by his uncle as an infant after his father died. At the age of 5 his uncle changed his name to Chojun Miyagi. His first instructor Ryoko Aragaki was impressed by the mischievous Chojun and recommended his continued karate instruction under the Naha-Te master, Kanryo Higaonna after which he became a serious and reserved student. His training included strengthening with rocks as weights and also for striking to toughen his fists. In school he trained with the judo team and was asked to resign because of his heavy handedness, as he would often use his Naha-Te techniques. Chojun was drafted by the Japanese Imperial Army and taught unarmed combat. In 1912 when he had completed his military training he returned home to Okinawa and resumed his training under Higaonna and prior to his death he named Chojun Miyagi the successor to his style Naha Te. Years later, he worked with Choki Motobu, Chomo Hanashiro and Kenwa Mabuni to set up an organization that would promote Tode called Ryukyu Tode Kankyu Kai. In 1930, after a demonstration in Meiji Jingu, Chojun Miyagi decided on the name of Goju Ryu for his style of Naha Te.

Master Tatsuo Shimabuku born 1908 (some sources state that he was born 1906) in the Chan (Kyan) Village, as Chinkichi Shimabuku, his name was later changed to Tatsuo, which means dragon man. He began his karate studies early with his Uncle, Irshu Matsumora (Kamasu Chan) in Shuri Te and later began his formal instruction under Chotoku Kyan as well as Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi and Okinawa weapons master Taira Shinken.

It has been said that Tatsuo Shimabuku trained most with Kyan and as such was most highly influenced by his teachings and values. He recognized as being proficient in both Shorin Ryu and Goju Ryu. Prior to the invasion of the Allied Forces, during the occupation by Japan, Tatsuo taught officers of the Japanese army the style that he called Chan MigwhaAe, and later was contracted by the US Special Services to teach the servicemen.

Tatsuo had a dream one evening that he believed divinely inspired him to create a style similar but clearly different than the preceding Okinawa Te styles. In 1956 Tatsuo officially founded Isshin Ryu Karate. Isshin Ryu means One Heart way, the kanji ( 一心流 ) can also be interpreted to mean Unified Hearts Method. As Tatsuo had once told a student of his, “All things begin with One”. The name of the style depicts the values passed onto him as they were taught to his instructors by the earliest Te Instructors.

The symbol of his style – the Isshin Ryu patch is symbolic of his ideals and beliefs. Tatsuo also continued these teachings of kata, values, and principles along with what he felt were essential changes to the punch, stances and blocking techniques aimed to aid the effectiveness and efficiency for all Isshin Ryu Karateka.