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I have been doing Karate for 3 years and during that time I have researched the history of Karate. My research indicates that during the propagation of Karate to Japan and the rest of the world, some techniques (and indeed the whole concept of bunkai) were "Japanified" and given names/specific applications to ease the teaching of large groups.

This, in my opinion, has weakened the art; many clubs either do not teach bunkai/self defence or they teach "Japanified" Bunkai/self defense, which is a source of much frustration for me (who on the street is going to be standing 10 feet away from you, for you to step towards them and block an Ushiro Geri for instance?)

So my question is this, where did all these impractical ideas come from? Has anybody done much research into this subject and if so, could you provide any references for further reading about this subject?

  • Please clarify what you mean by "Japanified". It's natural for styles to change over time and place, but you seem to have a specific idea in mind. Are you referring to naming? Unrealistic self-defense drills? Something larger? – mattm Oct 14 '16 at 15:47
  • By "Japanify" I mean codifying and regimantalising karate and therefore limiting it's practical use, I'm not sure if it was sensei Nakayama who started all that or sensei Funakoshi or even earlier as far back as master Itosu – Captain_Custard Oct 14 '16 at 16:21
  • In my experience, the problem doesn't reside in the "japanification" of the art, but rather on the lack of transition to live sparring. You start slow and telegraphed to work on positioning, technique and muscle memory. Then you go progressively faster until form disappears, and then you integrate it into your live sparring/combat arsenal. Perhaps your instructor is of the "live combat is for higher belts" philosophy? It could explain your experience... – Dungarth Oct 14 '16 at 20:10
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First, it's unclear how useful Okinawan karate was for self-defense prior to its transformation under Funakoshi, Itosu, et al., especially in comparison to modern methods.

Second, the major factors introducing impracticality are, to my mind, 1) incomplete transmission, 2) kata and classes as group activity, and 3) isolation from hojo undo and tegumi.

Incomplete transmission

Simply put, some karate teachers were not taught the complete syllabus. They learned a form without applications and that useless husk became their curriculum. People taught application-less kata are prone to make up ludicrous explanations for movements and to waste time trying to reverse-engineer forms to match known techniques.

It's hard to get fit or learn to fight when so much time and priority is put on learning dances and thinking about what parts of the dances could mean.

Group Kata, Group Classes

Prior to Itosu and Funakoshi, Okinawan martial arts were transmitted in small groups or in one-on-one sessions. Teaching karate to groups of school children changed this. Instead of coaching a protege individually, whole hordes of pupils had to be put through the motions (quite literally) of stepping through a form.

This was a radical change. Very little application can be taught in such large groups. The proportion of vitally useful supervised partner practice plummeted.

Isolation from Hojo Undo and Tegumi

Okinawan karate was originally taught to people who were fluent in Okinawan tegumi (wrestling). They were also strong because of either independent or coached use of hojo undo (supplemental training), such as lifting, grip practice, and practicing feats of strength. The modernization of karate brought karate to people who were not familiar with wrestling and whose primary physical training was karate (instead of hojo undo).

Learning karate's jiujitsu-like holds and tricks or its method of striking is virtually useless without the strength to back up technique or without the ability to fall back to wrestling if a clinch happens or is necessary. Wrestling and practiced physicality are broadly necessary skills that lay the foundation for karate, and yet became less common as karate modernized.

Other considerations

In addition to practical concerns about this particular historical change in Okinawan karate, there are also a host of functional criticisms. The training methods, strategy, and pedagogy of karate can be rightly discussed independent of historical concerns, speaking purely about modern karate as-is. That is another question.

Further reading

The primary suggestion I have for reading is to be extraordinary skeptical of any and all claims by Okinawan "masters". Expect self-aggrandizement at the national scale as well as the personal. Be critical of the idea that Okinawan karate is or has ever been useful in any way, and only then allow yourself to start considering the possibility that it might be, sometimes, in some limited ways.

With that in mind, Funakoshi's book Karate-Do: My Way of Life is solid, and a lot can be learned if one skeptically reads Mark Bishop's Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques and Tetsuhiro Okama's History and Traditions of Okinawan Karate.

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There are probably two components of an answer to this. The first is that, once Gichin Funakoshi brought karate to the Japanese mainland, some of his students saw the benefits of introducing the element of sport into karate. Most notably, this was done by Masatoshi Nakayama (and other founders of the JKA), who was a long time student of Funakoshi and Chief Instructor of the JKA since its inception in 1949 to the late 1900s.

This introduction of the sporting element has tended to degrade the true budō spirit in many cases, but this was not the original intention.

The role of karate in the modern age is multiple... As a practical means of self-defence, it is widely taught in private clubs... In Japan and elsewhere in the world, moreover, karate is gaining great popularity as a competitive sport, one which stresses mental discipline as well as physical prowess. ~ Dynamic Karate, M. Nakayama

A good karate school will either shun the sporting element, or include it as a part of training to gain skill and confidence, but always keep the underlying martial spirit.

The second reason is, in my opinion, the problem of many martial arts. This is the problem of stylised forms, of tradition, and primarily of interpretation. The purpose of practising kata is to teach correct form and free use of the body, but the movements of kata mostly need to be interpreted to make them functional, because the kata hold the knowledge of a particular martial system in stylised form.

Many teachers do not know this and do not know how to do this, and I have seen top Japanese instructors teach what I consider to be very impractical applications. Many also have not experienced other martial arts, and therefore other ways of thinking, and so are a bit stuck in the traditions, interpretations, and mode of understanding of their own system.

This is a challenge for every teacher and their ability as a teacher and martial artist is probably best exemplified in how they teach bunkai. (Or IF they teach bunkai at all.) The 'secret' is that bunkai should be loosely based on kata - we need to learn them to master the knowledge they contain, then throw away their stylised form when we apply that knowledge.

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