The concept of “traditional” karate or “traditional” martial arts is one that which many martial artists spend countless hours arguing about. So let’s start at the beginning, let’s look at the very word in contention : Tradition. What is tradition? As in any martial arts concepts (especially Japanese), it is not as straight forward as one may think. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines the word as : following or belonging to the customs or ways of behaving that have continued in a group of people or society for a long time without changing. So…. that’s what it means. But… what does that really mean, and why are we so obsessed by it.
When a dojo says that it practices “traditional” karate, is is making a statement. In the broadest terms, the ‘tradionalists’ are seeking to seperate themselves from ‘sport’ karate. In my own dojo, that is the point I’m trying to make. Unfortunately, there are some who use it to promote seperatism and isolationist practices, groups who seek to ‘own’ the term and carelessly, sink into petty divisiveness, ignorance and even bigotry.
The word ‘traditional’ may even divide those within the same Ryu or style. There are many clubs that advertise themselves as ‘Traditional Shotokan’, ‘Traditional Shorin-Ryu’, ‘Traditional Shito-Ryu’,etc…… AS OPPOSED TO WHAT? By saying that your style is tradional, you are infering that others are NOT, and that yours is the original, therefore the best, others are just clones??? Come on!!!! It is common practice to make bold statements. After all, advertising is advertising. But when you believe your own hype, it becomes a problem.
I sincerely believe that I have, for the past two decades, practiced and teach traditonal karate-do. There may be stylistic difference between okinawan and japanese karate, but these differences can be easily explained away as the preference of one technique over another by a teacher. But, how come my karate doesn’t look like Kanazawa’s Shotokan… and then again how come Kanazawa’s doesn’t look like Nishiyama’s or Nakayama’s. When Browsing through the Karate-do Kyohan, I noticed, how come Nakayama’s doesn’t look like Funakoshi’s??
We have to accept as things pass from one generation to another, changes are made. They may be minor or major, but things change. They may not even be deliberate. Kata may be slightly different – but they are still recognisably the same kata. The bunkai may be different – but the underlying principles remain the same. Sparring may be different – but the principles of trying to teach timing, distances, speed and power remain intact.
There may be differences, but the similarities far outweigh any differences that exist. However, karate is not, and never has been, a defined set of techniques. Even as “traditionalists”, maybe especially as “traditionalists”, we owe it to our students and to ourselves to improve all the time. It is traditional to train towards self-betterment through passion, courage, power and integrity. It is not traditional to try to stick to one method in an unchanging and unthinking manner.