Styles: Are They Killing Karate?

Styles: Are They Killing Karate?

Tell another martial artist that you practise karate and it is very likely that they will immediately then ask you, “what style?”. From this it would seem that the notion of style is felt to be important. However, this raises many questions: How did all these various styles come into existence? Are they really that important? Should the existing styles be preserved? Or perhaps we should be looking to create new styles? In this article I’d like to look at the notion of style and suggest that, whilst the styles handed down to us are of great value, if we place too much emphasis on “style” it can be detrimental to karate.

The most widely practised style of karate today is almost certainly Shotokan karate. As I’m sure most of those reading this will know, it was Gichin Funakoshi who is attributed as being the founder of this style of karate. So what did Funakoshi himself have to say about the style he founded?

Towards the end of his life, Gichin Funakoshi wrote the following in his book Karate-Do: My Way of Life, “One serious problem, in my opinion, which besets present day karate-do is the prevalence of divergent schools. I believe this will have a deleterious effect on the future development of the art … There is no place in contemporary karate-do for different schools … Indeed, I have heard myself and my colleagues referred to as the Shotokan school, but I strongly object to this attempt at classification.” Funakoshi goes on to say that he believes all karate is one and that it is this approach that will best serve the future of karate. So it seems that Funakoshi was not a fan of the idea of schools or styles and, if he were around today, he would probably be unhappy at being labelled as the founder of the Shotokan style. Funakoshi’s objection to styles seems to be primarily based on his concern that styles would be divisive and would see karate separate into various factions.

Other masters were more comfortable with the idea of styles, but Funakoshi was in no way alone in his worry that styles could be divisive and detrimental to karate. Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-Ryu, is also on record of saying that he felt all karate was one and what people considered to be styles were simply variations in the expression of karate’s common principles. So we know that the idea of styles was not universally endorsed and that two of modern karate’s founders felt that that karate as a whole should be valued more than its various expressions. But where did these “various expressions” or styles originate from?

When we talk about karate styles, it is commonly accepted that Shotokan, Shito-Ryu, Wado-Ryu and Goju-Ryu are the four styles that are most widely practised across the globe. I’d now like to briefly look at the formation of each of these styles.

Shotokan: Gichin Funakoshi studied under Anko Azato, Anko Itosu, and, to a lesser degree, Bushi Matsumura. It was Funakoshi’s personal synthesis and expression of what he learnt from these teachers that formed the nucleus of what is now called Shotokan (although, as we have seen, Funakoshi himself did not like that term). Funakoshi borrowed a number of ideas from Judo (i.e. the uniform, grading system, etc). Shotokan was further developed by Gichin Funakoshi’s son, Gigo Funakoshi.

Shito-Ryu: Kenwa Mabuni studied under both Anko Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna. Mabuni synthesised the methods of both men into what became know as Shito-Ryu. Indeed, the name reflects this synthesis as “Shito” is derived from the first kanji characters used in writing “Itosu” & “Higaonna”. When I interviewed Haruyoshi Yamada 9th dan – who studied under Chojiro Tani, who was in turn a student of Kenwa Mabuni – in 2006 he told me that Kenwa Mabuni also practised Shin-den Fudo-ryu Jujutsu and taught this style of jujutsu to Chojiro Tani. However, it would seem that Mabuni kept this aspect of his personal martial practise separate from his karate style.

Goju-Ryu: Chojun Miyagi studied Naha-Te karate under Kanryo Higashionna. Miyagi, like his teacher, made a number of trips to China to learn more to further develop his martial arts knowledge. Miyagi himself did not give a name to his system until one of his senior students, Jinan Shinzato, was asked to name it following a demonstration he gave in Tokyo in 1930. Jinan Shinzato is said to have said struggled to accurately name the style he practised and it is said that he reluctantly settled on “Naha-te”, but felt this did not accurately reflect what Miyagi was now teaching. He returned to Okinawa, explained his predicament to Miyagi who decided that Goju-Ryu (Hard-Soft School) would be a good title for what they now practised.

Wado-Ryu: Before taking up karate, Hironori Otsuka originally studied Shindo-Yoshin-Ryu Jujutsu under Tasusaburo Nakayama. Later, he studied karate under Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni and Choki Motobu. Otsuka’s Wado is a fusion of his jujutsu and the various interpretations of karate as taught to him by his various teachers.

What should be noted straight away is that Funakoshi, Mabuni, Otsuka and Miyagi did not preserve karate as it was passed on to them. They fused various expressions of karate together and also gained both technical and cultural influences from Chinese systems, Jujutsu and even Judo. These new styles were not “pure” or passed on in an unchanging way across the centuries; they were a “mongrel mix” of what the founders considered the best aspects of all their influences. The past masters mixed things together, left things out, and created things that were their own. This was far from being a “free for all” though. This development of these “new traditions” was done according to the process of Shuhari.

Shuhari is the process through which martial arts are said to evolve. Each syllable represents a specific kanji character and the process of Shuhari is best explained by looking at the meanings of each individual character.

Shu: The meaning of this character is “to defend” or “to obey”. In martial arts, this stage would be the learning of the fundamentals of our chosen style. The student does not yet have enough knowledge or experience to be able to effectively deviate from the fundamentals and hence it is important that they strictly adhere to them. Essentially this stage is “learning by copying”.

Ha: The meaning of “Ha” is “to diverge” or to “break away”. A martial artist who has reached this stage will be working to find their own personal expression of the fundamentals introduced by the preceding stage. They will be working out what they feel is most effective and making corresponding changes to their training and teaching. Essentially this stage is “learning by experimenting”.

Ri: The final character means “to leave” or “to go away”. At this stage the martial artist has moved away from the earlier stages of their martial art and – although what they now do can still trace its origins to their early training – is now uniquely theirs. It has “left” what they originally did and may now need its own name to adequately define it. Essentially this stage is “learning by creating”.

The martial artist who has reached the “Ri” stage will encourage their students to copy their teachings (Shu) and the whole process begins again.

If you look at the history of the four main styles discussed earlier, you can see the Shuhari process at work. The masters who formulated the modern styles started by faithfully copying the teachings of their own masters. At a certain point, the master develops their own expression of these teachings; and this included the fusing together of various separate methods i.e. different martial arts styles and alternative expressions of karate. Finally what the master is doing has moved so far from the original teachings that it has became something new. This is the point where a new label is needed and, as soon as that label is given, a new “style” is born.

As I said earlier, this developing of new styles was not a “free for all” and these new styles were not born of political infighting, financial interest or ego. They came into existence as genuinely new expressions of previous existing systems. So where does this leave us and how does the idea of styles and Shuhari apply to us today?

As I see it, one of the biggest problems facing karate today, and martial arts generally, is the abandoning of the Shuhari ideal. I would suggest to you that in the majority of cases “Shuhari” has been replaced with ”Shu-Shu-Shu”. The existing styles are frequently regarded as sacrosanct with any minor change being viewed as a form of heresy. This is not good for karate, it is not in-keeping with what the past masters themselves did, and it is not inline with traditional practises.

One of the main reasons for “Shu-Shu-Shu” becoming so prevalent is the modern disconnect between problem and solution. The past masters originally sought what they considered to be the best solution to the problem of violence. A problem arose when martial artists stopped measuring against efficiency in combat and started introducing artificial criteria such as “style purity”. Whether something was “good” or not was no longer measured against its efficiently in combat, but instead “good” was always measured against how close any given motion was to a rigid “style criteria”. The element of “ha” or “divergence” was actively discouraged, even if that divergence would increase combative efficiency. “Shu” – or the ability to strictly copy a teacher’s movements – was all that the grading system rewarded and is all that people trained for.

This problem can perhaps be seen most clearly when discussing kata. The original purpose of kata was to record and communicate combative techniques and concepts. Kata could be viewed as a set of instructions or a syllabus that would guide a practitioner’s study and practise. Kata is the map to guide the student through the landscape of conflict. The trouble has been that people stopped trying to navigate their way through conflict and started endlessly copying maps instead! It mattered little if people could “utilise the map in the territory” so long as they were able to accurately copy out the map.

The actually expression of the combative principles within kata became an irrelevance. The goal changed. It was now all about faithful copying and keeping the kata “pure”. Those who navigated the territory and, as a result of their experience, suggested updating the map were condemned as heretics. The map was no longer something functional, but a work of art to be copied and admired, but not understood or used.

In all fields it is very important that we faithfully and accurately understand the teachings and findings of the previous generation. This information is invaluable as it removes the need for each generation to start from scratch. If we always had to start from scratch, each generation would have to start with fire and the wheel and hence humanity would make no progress.

In the field of physics, school children throughout the world learn Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. There is no need to rediscover these laws as the work has already been done. Some students may go on to study physics at a high level and eventually work at the cutting edge of the field. They aim to come up with better theories to explain the physical universe. In doing so they are seeking what Newton himself sought. They are honouring him by building on his research. They would not honour him if they abandoned the search he was key part of and instead sought to preserve the “infallible equations” of “Newton-Ryu”.

In the martial arts, “styles” can become a barrier to progress if they are viewed as something that must always be preserved and can never be deviated from. This preservation prevents the process of Shuhari, diverts us from the quest that the masters themselves were on, can prevent improvements in combative efficiently, and will ultimately lead to the stagnation and death of the “style”. Styles are not sacrosanct and it is important that we allow karate to live and to evolve.

The styles that have been handed down to us are invaluable. They form the basis of what we do and we should be incredibly grateful to the founders of these styles for ensuring we don’t have to start from the beginning. We should faithfully copy their teachings so we gain a good understanding of their own discoveries. However, there will eventually come a point where we should continue to copy the example of the founders of these styles and introduce our own expression of the core concepts. Eventually we may even do what they did and go on to formulate and teach our own personal expression of karate.

Using “style purity” to stifle growth is not “traditional” and is bad for karate as a whole. We can see evidence of this in the loss on combative efficiency that “form over function” karate has produced. We should return to seeing styles as being the foundation study that eventually frees us to express karate in our own way. We should be constantly striving to better understand the problem of violence and improve on the solutions offered by previous generations. If we can make such an improvement it is because of the superb job the past masters did in preparing us to do just that. We are in no way suggesting we are “better than them” when we suggest improvements. We are acknowledging their genius when we suggest improvements!

To use what I think is a very apt quotation from English author John of Salisbury (1159), “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size”. We do the past masters a great disservice if we allow ourselves to be lifted up by them only to close our eyes! Karate should evolve and styles are at their most valuable when they facilitate effective evolution by passing on what the previous generation discovered so we can use it as our base. Sadly, the prevailing view of styles today, far from effectively facilitating evolution, actually prevents that evolution and encourages stagnation.

I am in agreement with Mabuni and Funakoshi when they said that all karate was one. That does not mean that all expressions of karate should be exactly the same or unchanging. Instead it means that all the various expressions are simply braches of the same tree. When a tree grows it produces new branches. These new branches are good for the health of the whole tree. Like a tree, karate will be at its most healthy when allowed to grow.