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It is always a good exercise to take account of our motivations as karate teachers and practitioners. Why do we continue on, year after year, teaching and practicing karate? Yes there are a lot of easy, canned answers: cultivation of character, preserving the traditions of the past, to learn to be able to defend oneself, to confront our responses to violence, force of habit. I am sure I am leaving many out.

I don’t think most people scrutinize this carefully. For a variety of reasons, answering this requires us to consider who makes up the community of people to whom we are responsible towards. When the answer is ambiguous it becomes nearly impossible to understand the extent of our responsibilities, and thus what it is we should be doing. The ‘why’ question becomes easier to address when we are clear about what we are doing, and equally important, about what we are not/ should not be doing.

There are those who regard themselves as hard-core ‘traditionalists’ for whom preserving tradition seems to be the ultimate objective. To these people the most important obligation is to ones predecessors in these arts. Of course it is useful and proper to give credit where it is due. We have an obligation to make sure our historical claims are accurate, but that seems like the extent of our obligation to the dead.

Many times in the thirty-plus years I have been involved with martial arts, I have seen abusive and insensitive behavior justified by appeals to tradition.

As a younger black-belt level instructor, I remember struggling with ethical dilemmas that should not have been complicated, however, my judgment was clouded by the imagined relevance of some mumbo jumbo associated with tradition.

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This article details a trend of serious, unrecognized injuries and a surprising number of deaths in Japanese youth Judo programs. I found this story to be of particular interest, since Judo is often advertised as a very safe martial arts activity for kids.

The take-home message:

”First of all, many judo instructors at Japanese schools are too ignorant about what to do when a serious incident occurs…”

The activity itself isn’t necessarily unsafe, but the environment and attitude in which it is trained can be. We’ve beaten this particular dead horse for a while, but it bears repeating. Instructors have a responsibility to know:

  • their students’ limitations and health considerations
  • the risks inherent in their activity
  • what constitutes a serious injury
  • how to avoid serious injuries
  • what to do in the event of a serious injury
  • what not to do in the event of a serious injury

The quote at the end of the article brings to mind the mindless culture of obedience, subservience and physical abuse that was encouraged/required in early Japanese University karate clubs (and still is, in some cases):

Mr Murakawa said: ”Children, afraid of getting beaten up, must obey the coach and cannot ask for a rest for no matter what.”

This attitude has absolutely no place in any training hall of any art anywhere. It’s not worth emulating, it’s not honorable, and it is not “traditional.” The sooner it’s discarded, the better. Getting tougher and finding out what you can take is valuable and worth pursuing; sacrificing your safety and health for macho posturing is not.

If you watch closely you will see two short clips from the TKRI demonstrations at the Missouri Botanical Gardens this year. Nice job guys.

Note: I would like to acknowledge the enormous contributions of my teachers and training colleagues to my thinking on this matter: most notably Robert Miller in his essay “Modern Karate: A Reconsidered Pedagogy”; Dr. Gillian Russell’s essay “Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts” and Harry Cook for providing a solid sounding board for my inchoate, all-over-the-place musings.

“Traditional Karate”: A Problem of Definitions

Over the past couple of years, an increasing level of conversation has developed amongst karate practitioners about what karate is. As practitioners of the fighting arts learn more about each other via books and the internet, and the rise of mixed martial arts has provided a yardstick for the superiority of this technique or that, the standard answers are becoming more and more inadequate. This process of reckoning is acutely noticeable on online discussion forums.  If you throw the question of “what is karate?” onto a discussion board, the replies will cover a very broad range of interpretations and practices. Some replies will take all facets of training and the contingencies of fighting into account and evaluate them carefully, while others will staunchly defend this major brand name or that as “the” keepers of correct tradition.” In an age where ideas and methods can be accessed at the click of a button and information is more available than at any other time in history, many karateka still insist on wearing blinders. Some who engage in these conversations become very distraught at the suggestion that their school of choice is not recognized by all as being the best (epistemic viciousness at its best), while others actively pursue new perspectives.

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Follow the link below for an excellent article by  Alex Bennett of the International Research Centre for  Japanese Studies:

Excerpt (page 53):

However, a more martial interpretation of bushido came into vogue again in the militarist 1930’s, and many Japanese soldiers read copies of the aforementioned Hagakure, or Bushido on the way to the front. In the aftermath of WWII, bushido fell into disfavour. Foreign and Japanese critics alike blamed bushido as representing all that was most loathsome in Japanese wartime behaviour. Many Japanese renounced bushido as part of the misguided militaristic ideology resulting in Japan’s defeat and shame, and as unsuited to their new post-war democratic society.

The thing with bushido is that it always has been, and always will be, open for interpretation. There is no one ‘school of bushido.’ Recent history has
shown that this makes the idea useful and potentially dangerous at the same time

Click Here.

InYo: Bushido or Bull: Friday.

The Hidden Relevance of Japanese Historical Influences.

1970 Bushido: Mishima Yukio and the Shield Society.

WAR / Japanese soldiers finally tell their story / Hell in the Pacific — from vivisection to cannibalism.

Follow this link to Nitobe’s  often cited work ” Bushido, the Soul of Japan” (full text included).

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


May 2020

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