History: is it a thing of the past?

History: is it a thing of the past?

Is an understanding of the history of karate important?  Or is it an irrelevant distraction from the pursuit of combative efficiency? Perhaps it can be both? As I see it “history” can be a force for either progress or stagnation and in this article I would like to talk about a number of issues relating to karate’s history and how that may effect our approach to the art today.

Those who are familiar with my previous articles will know that I draw a distinction between “pragmatists” and “historians”. An historian would be someone who is interested in how the martial arts were practised in the past. Historical accuracy would be their primary concern. Conversely, a pragmatist is someone who wants to make the martial arts as efficient as possible in today’s world. Combative effectiveness would be their primary concern. Although I find the history of the martial arts to be of great importance, I would nevertheless class myself as a pragmatist as I always place combative efficacy above adherence to the practises of history.

James Freeman and Iain Abernethy Bunkai DrillMy personal identification as a pragmatist may surprise some due to the heavy emphasis I place on traditional kata. However, kata is part of my practise precisely because it serves my aims as a pragmatist. I don’t practise kata for historical interest or to “remain true to tradition”. I practise kata and bunkai because of my interest in their combative application.

When we begin our martial practise we are taught the system of our teachers. As time passes, we should begin to discriminate and decide what aspects of that teaching we wish to keep as is, reinterpret, and which aspect we will totally drop. This is the “shuhari” process and I talked about that process in greater detail in other articles and podcasts.

As part of my own martial development, there are practises that I have dropped. For example, in my dojo we do no one-step, three-step or five-step sparring. It matters little to me that these were practises passed onto me. It also matters little to me that that such practises could be considered “traditional” (although I would personally dispute that definition) or of historical importance. It is my experience that such practises do not lead to combative efficiency – indeed they get in the way of it by introducing many falsehoods – and hence I have not kept them as part of my practise.

I can assure you that had I found kata and bunkai (kata application) to be of little combative value, I would also have dropped it without hesitation. I also fully support those people who have not found value in kata and have hence dropped it from their practise. However, it has been my personal experience that kata has had a lot to offer and hence it is central to what I do. I’ll reiterate that kata is central to what I do, not because it is “historical” or “traditional”, but because it has proven valuable to me and my students for its combative value.

Kata was something taught to me as part of my initial martial study. As time passed, I endeavoured to understand kata in greater depth. The more I studied kata, the more combative value I found in them. Kata provided a syllabus and a structure to the physical “self-protection” or “civilian combative” aspects of my study and teaching. I found kata and bunkai (kata application) to be a very valuable part of my practise and teaching; so I invested more time to its study and practise.

As part of my study of kata, it was important that I understood the process of its development. I needed to appreciate, what kata was originally created for and how kata practice and the kata themselves have developed over time. I found that kata was originally a method of ensuring information relevant to civilian combat was preserved and passed on through the generations. Kata was then reinterpreted into a very formal karateka vs. karateka affair in the early 1900s.

(I’ve written about this elsewhere and would ask anyone interested in this to checkout previous articles or the articles section of Iain Abernethy.com). So for me to find value in kata, I needed to be aware of these historical changes so I could strip them out in order to achieve the combative efficiency that I sought. Even though I am a pragmatist, an understanding of history was definitely needed to achieve that pragmatism when it came to kata and bunkai. All of this brings us to a very important distinction.

I believe my approach to kata and bunkai to be inline with the historical information available to us, and I also believe it to be combatively functional. But can I say that the specifics of the bunkai I teach are exactly the same as the combative techniques that gave rise to the kata in the first instance?

In a small number of cases – where we have specific references to certain motions i.e. an arm-bar in Naihanchi and the double leg pick up in Passai (both referenced in Funakoshi’s early writing) – the answer would be “Yes”. But in the majority of cases, I could not be certain that my bunkai is the same as the originator’s bunkai; because that information is not available to us. I can be certain that the precepts that gave birth to that bunkai are the same; for example the fact that the angle in kata represents the angle you are in relationship to the opponent is referenced in the wrings of both Mabuni and Motobu. So I would expect that when addressing the same problem (civilian conflict), through the studying the same solution (kata) via a common set of principles, that the end results would be similar. But we can never be certain that they would be exactly the same. Back to the important distinction: For an historian – who is interested in the specifics of how things are done in the past – this is a problem as there is no firm historical certainty. But as a pragmatist, it matters little if the bunkai being practised is “historically pure” or not. All that matters is that it works.

The evidence is not there for the historian to draw certain conclusions on the specifics of bunkai. We can rule things out though, because although the information may not be there to confirm specifics, the evidence may be there to rule things out. The fact remains though that the historian is reliant on historical information for validity. The pragmatist, however, can check their conclusions in live training and hence the validity can easily be confirmed or denied. It’s not adherence to the past that we should be seeking, but adherence to what works. After all, that was the process adopted in the past! More on that later.

Before we move on with this discussion, its worth pointing out to those who feel pragmatic bunkai is a “modern falsehood” (and they are a few of them about), that there is not the historical evidence to support their view that kata is about other karateka patiently waiting on the eight cardinal compass points to launch their oi-zuki on cue … and not a moment before!

There is some relatively modern writing that espouses that view to be sure, but there is nothing to suggest such practises were part of karate before it reached the shores of mainland Japan. There is however evidence to say such practises were not part of karate before this time. So not only does choreographed karateka vs. karate bunkai not work practically, there is little to support it historically as well.

The key point I wish to make here is that, in my view as a pragmatist, we should always put pragmatism ahead of adherence to either historical dogma or pseudo-historical dogma. There is value in history in so far as it helps us understand our foundations, but we should be building upon these foundations and measuring by effect, not perceived “historical accuracy”. Are we martial artists or historical battle re-enactors? Do we want to know if our skills are valid today? Or if they would have been valid in a past age?

To my way of thinking being “traditional” is not about rigidly sticking to historical dogma, it is about pursuing what has always been pursued (well aside from the last few decades or so). When we take what has been passed onto us and do all we can to ensure ever increasing combative efficiency through information gathering, testing and refinement, we are walking the path that the past masters walked and it is then that we are being traditional. We should not get “stuck in the past” as one thing that everything is the past has in common is that it is no longer current. Karate will die if we place too great an emphasis on history.

Do we stick to something we know to be less efficient because it is “historical”? Now an historian or “battle re-enactor” may well do that. But as a modern martial artist who wants useable skills that would seem to be a bizarre and very tenuous position to take. And yet we see it all the time.

I’ve lost count of the times when “traditional martial artists” reject obviously effective methods on the basis that “it’s not traditional”, “it’s not what they did in the past”, “it’s not what master so and so originally taught” or “it’s not how my ‘style’ does it”. These are all examples of past history being placed ahead of functionality. And, perhaps paradoxically, it is not what the old masters themselves did!

Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan Karate) in “Karate-Do: My way if life” said of his two main teachers, “Both Azato and his good friend Itosu shared at least one quality of greatness: They suffered from no petty jealousy of other masters. They would present me to other masters of their acquaintance, urging me to learn from each the techniques at which they excelled.” So we can see that Azato, Itosu and Funakoshi were keen on the idea of seeking the best methods out there, as opposed to rigidly sticking to the teachings of any one master or method.

The Okinawan masters did not preserve their native arts or the Chinese systems; they melded them together and tried to make them better. Indeed if you look at what happened, not one generation kept things exactly the same as they were passed onto them. They all took what was taught to them and tried to make it better. That’s how all the various styles evolved in the first place! Not a single one of the masters of the classical generation took what they were taught and passed it on totally unaltered without revision, subtraction or addition.

To again quote Funakoshi from “Karate-Do: My way of life”, “Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too.” In the same section Funakoshi talks about the changes to karate during his own lifetime. Change is traditional!

This idea of things being passed on without change over endless generations is a pure myth. I don’t want to get into this too much, but I feel the notion of things remaining historically fixed only really takes off when you are no longer measuring by effect – and things have warped so much that effectiveness is being lost – that you need a new datum by which to measure “improvement”. So an arbitrary “standard” is set – which is justified with the myth of being “traditional” or “historically pure” – and then we are then no longer perusing what the masters originally sought, but instead have “deified” an empty and hollow shell.

James Freeman and Iain Abernethy Bunkai Drill 2Let me make totally clear that I am in no way saying the karate that has been given to us should not be valued or respected. Quite the contrary! It’s great information that saves us from having to start from scratch. As in all fields of human endeavour, what is passed on to us and what we don’t need to “rediscover” provides us with a base on which to build. Without the work of those who came before, we would not have that invaluable base! We should then build on that base to hopefully provide a better base of the next generation.

When we see “history” as something that we must rigidly adhere to, we kill all progress. Imagine if scientists, inventors, doctors, etc. all decided that what was passed onto them should be rigidly preserved instead of being used as a base of further progress? Civilisation would stall, perhaps even start to slide backwards.

It is my view that we betray the work of the past masters and we dishonour it when we say it should never be altered. Because when we do that, we ensure karate’s stagnation and demise and we contribute to the death of the art that the past masters worked so hard to create and develop. We honour the past most when we use it as a base from which to learn and from which we can do our best to further advance the art.

One very important point is that not everything will need to be revised or developed. We have to be careful to avoid change for change’s sake in order to provide the illusion of progress. If certain aspects of what has been passed on are working fine as they are, then of course we should keep them as they are (while simultaneously accepting that future generations may disagree and change it further down the line). We should concentrate our efforts on the areas where we feel we have the information and experience to make genuine improvements. So it’s far from being all or nothing.

I do get people (both traditionalists and modernists) writing to me to object that I’m not being consistent! The modernists generally like the pragmatism of what I do, but they don’t like, or get confused by the fact that I place a heavy emphasis on kata. The traditionalists on the other hand, like that fact that I value kata, but get upset when I spar differently (i.e. holistically) and reject things like three-step sparring. They see it as being all or nothing. The traditionalists in particular get upset when I will agree with a past master on one point, but disagree with them on another. To their minds, this is being “inconsistent”. But I don’t see it that way. I don’t have to accept the past entirely or reject it entirely. I also don’t have to agree with the past masters (or anyone else for that matter) entirely or disagree with them entirely. It’s an issue by issue, technique by technique, and practice by practise affair. It’s a matter of taking what works for me and rejecting what does not work for me. It’s simply a matter of choosing pragmatism over historical dogma.

As I frequently say at the seminars, there are two very common errors when it comes to the traditional martial arts:

Error 1 – Thinking that the old master got everything right (as the more blinkered traditionalists are prone to do).

Error 2 – Thinking that the old masters got everything wrong (as the more blinkered modernists are prone to do).

The truth, as is so often the case, is found between the two extremes. History has passed on some amazingly effective things, but not everything passed on is amazingly effective. We need to discriminate and examine all that has been passed on without wholesale acceptance or rejection.

I’m very lucky that I get to spend a lot of my time travelling the globe and swapping ideas with other martial artists. What I see is a growing number of karateka who are honouring their historical roots by studying them in-depth, not in order to acquire knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to ensure total relevance to the modern world and to ensure the growth of the art. This leads to a form of karate that is living and vibrant and has a bright future. However, those karateka who choose to be totally bound by the past – through a misguided sense of “tradition” – will cause their karate to stagnate and become a thing of the past. The irony of course is that they are not being truly traditional when they do that!

Karate has a strong history that all karateka, regardless of preferred approach, should be very proud of. However, I would say that looking to the past only had value when we use that information to take us forward into the future.