Karate Do: A History of Continuous Improvement

Everyone has heard about karate at some point in time, but did you know that karate is relatively young, that ‘true traditional karate’ does not exist and that you cannot really learn karate from a book or video?

A history of continuous improvement
The history of Karate-Do is clouded in myths of which the true elements are hard to identify, but we do know that it is characterised by many side tracks and mergers of styles and knowledge. A single direct line of evolution does not really exist. Throughout time martial artists from different styles, arts and countries have interacted, exchanged know how and inspired each other.

Karate-Do is, despite popular belief, very young: in fact only a few decades old. It springs from Okinawa, which unlike Japan, maintained intensive trade relations with the entire East Asian region. The Okinawan martial art, Tode, is mainly inspired from Southern Chinese martial arts including the legendary Shaolin Kung Fu. However, influences from India (Kalaripayat) en Malaysia (Pencak Silat) cannot be ruled out. Another important influence is Jigen Ryu Ken Jutsu, a sword fighting style from Ryu Kyu (A Southern Japanese island group), which was very likely introduced when the Ryu Kyuan Satsuma occupied Okinawa in 1609.

The development of Karate started only after the annexation of Okinawa by Japan and after the Meji revolution (1868). The Meji revolution meant the end of the Japanese ‘medieval period’ and the start of modernisation. It meant the end of the Japanese fighting classes (Samurai) and the transformation of BuJutsu (fighting systems and training methods based on building mental and physical skills) to BuDo (building mental and physical skills based on fighting systems and training methods). It also meant the transformation of Karate to fit for high-school gym classes through amongst others the Pinan (Heian) kata by Itosu. In a later stage the uniform, grading system and teaching methods were adapted from Judo through interaction between Okinawan Gichin Funakoshi and Japanese Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo.

During world war II, karate was again adjusted. It was optimised for bare hand man-to-man fighting for the Japanese navy and therefore reduced to the simple, effective and easy-to-learn techniques. After the war, karate was mainly practiced at Univsersities and teachers reintegrated the ‘older’ elements based on their own beleifs and evolved karate with new academic insights from dynamics en biomechanics. This is also the time that karate was spread over the world carried by gifted karateka, including Nakayama, Kase, Shirai en Nishiyama, from the teachers’ training course of the JKA (Japanese Karate Association).

Also in the rest of the world the struggle for continuous improvement continued, including many debates and splits of federations. The most recent developments are made in France and specifically Italy, where new training methods are being developed and techniques adapted based on new biomechanic and didactic insights.

Al in all, we can state that ‘traditional’ karate is an empty term simply because karate is relatively young and characterised by continuous change. It shows influences from early Chines styles, sword fighting, close combat, and modern biomechanics. We therefore define the karate tradition as the effort to continuously improve based on new insights in order to make karate techniques more effective, easier to learn and safer to practice.

Shotokan karate
The style we practice is Shotokan KarateDo. Shoto is the poet’s alias of Gichin Funakoshi and means ‘wind in the pine trees’, referring to a combination of persistence and flexibility. Kan means ‘school’. Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) has been key in the transfer of karate from Okinawa to Japan, but he has certainly not been the only one involved. Contemporary karate is a world of difference of the karate that Funakoshi practiced, which is a good thing.

Karate cannot be learned from books or videos
Karate is very technical and requires high-level motoric skills and persistence. Before being able to perform karate techniques, the body should be able to make these movements in the first place. Therefore we put a lot of effort in building flexibility, mobility and motoric skills. On top of that basis we can build karate techniques, which require very specific motions and transitions. This is why karate cannot be learned from a book. A book simply does not show or explain how to make the exact motion in order to make the optimal technique. The karate techniques require a lot of training before they can be executed full speed and power. Furthermore, the training with fellow karateka is very important to perfect the techniques in terms of impact, control and realism. So, karate cannot be learned from a video: the movements are very specific one simply needs fellow karateka for training and inspiration.