Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Evolution of Karate

Certainly many others have been far more personally involved in the martial arts over the last few decades than I have. They could write about the changes they've seen with more accuracy and authority. But this is my blog, so I'm going to have to do it.

When I think of the martial arts, I tend to think of various systems of combat techniques that have deep, historical roots and have changed very slowly, for the most part, over many generations. Each teacher might put his own spin on certain aspects of his style, but generally he would teach much as his own teacher had done, and his students would do the same. And that's just how it was, for hundreds of years.

In the 20th century, a wide array of changes occurred as westerners influenced the people of Asia and Asians shared their knowledge with westerners. The results included things like colored belts and not practicing in your underwear. It also included governing boards to oversee standards as well as "sport" competitions.

My experience, of course, begins only at the very end of that dynamic century. Karate, kung-fu, tae kwon do and other styles had already found their way to America and were reasonably well-entrenched. Even in a modest-sized city like Syracuse, there were a handful of well-known schools and an array of smaller ones. There were tournaments, seminars, demonstrations, contracts, kumite, and kobudo. At the time it was fairly traditional, or at least consistent with "modern" traditional martial arts as it was being done across the country and around the world. You selected a style, you trained in that style, and if you were really dedicated you might, at some point after many years of training, train in one or more additional styles and seek to really understand the heart and soul of martial arts.

In the late 1970s, aerobic exercise started to become popular. I remember when it was introduced at the Fairmount Tennis Club where I spent a lot of time hanging around while my mom played tennis. It really caught on in the 1980s. Karate, likewise, saw a surge in the 1970s and 80s, as it made its way into popular culture through legends like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, followed by movies like The Karate Kid. In the 1980s we had Flashdance at one end, and the films by Van Damme and Seagal at the other end.

By the early 1990s, the two started to come together. People wanted to exercise and get a good cardiovascular workout, and karate schools had time slots available and knew how to exercise. Somebody got smart and figured out, "Hey, I could take what I know about karate, add in the new Thai Kickboxing that's getting a lot of attention, and swirl them both together with aerobics! Why should the dance instructors be making all the cash?" And so was born 'cardio kickboxing.' The world of martial arts and modern fitness collided and merged, just like that.

In tandem, some schools saw Thai Kickboxing (or Muay-Thai) and decided that it could make a good addition to their own training. By the dawn of the 21st century, it became somewhat common to see kickboxing folded into the training of a non-Thai martial arts style.

Also throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s we saw the rise of Mixed-Martial Arts. This "catch-all" term meant lots of things to lots of people, but it generally seemed to arise out of the Ultimate Fighting Championship cage-matches that began in 1993. The original idea - to find the best martial-artist and the best style of combat - was at first little more than a brutal gladiatorial event, reminiscent of the Kumite of Van Damme's movie, "Bloodsport." It was interesting to watch, at least until the Gracie family got involved. Then it got boring in a hurry. Why? Because the Gracie's ALWAYS won, and in spectacularly ho-hum fashion. It's just not that entertaining to watch them tie a guy up into a ball and hold him there for a minute or two until he gives up. But it was good enough to get MMA into the American martial arts milieu. The combination of boxing, Muay Thai, ground-fighting and whatever else you wanted to throw in has become increasingly popular throughout the last decade or so, finding its way into more traditional karate dojos or in some cases supplanting them completely. There are several martial arts schools around without any of the traditional Asian trappings - the white japanese gi or the black kung-fu uniform, the hakama, the bowing, the belts; they're all missing. The schools would look more at home in Rocky than The Karate Kid.

And so has karate evolved in the U.S. in the last thirty years in some respects faster than it evolved in Asia over multiple generations. Certainly there are still traditional dojos practicing only the pure forms of Goju-Ryu Karate or Chinese Kung-fu, but many, many others don't even mention what style of martial arts their school is based on. They haven't necessarily lost their way, but they've definitely chosen a different way, a different path.

I sometimes wonder why, though. Are these new styles more effective than the more "common" or "traditional" styles they've supplanted? I don't think so, no - at least not if they're practiced correctly. Are they easier to learn? Well, they might be - they typically don't have katas or the like to learn, so once you've learned the main strikes and blocks you're most of the way there. Still, they're going to take just as much effort to truly master, assuming the student and the school both care about that sort of thing. Certainly you don't see too many American kickboxers smashing their shins against trees or concrete bricks like the real Thai ones do. Mostly, it seems to me as if the styles have been chosen because they're "hot" or "cool."

Which also isn't inherently wrong - at least in my opinion. I choose to study the martial arts at least in part because I think it's cool. I just hope that the evolution of the martial arts is based on conviction and dedication, and does its best to avoid fads and buzz. Anybody who thinks they've figured out in a few decades what took the Chinese and Japanese, the Koreans and the Thai centuries had better really be onto something, or they might want to think again.


  1. Nice article...

    The word "evolution" is commonly used to describe change, but we have to be careful not to confuse evolution with "entropy".

    Evolution requires changes that are filtered by some sort of survival test or reproductive advantage. Without such a test of the changes, what you are really describing is entropy - a natural falling apart that happens to everything without deliberate maintenance.

    The forces that drive evolution you describe could be those of efficacy (survival of the fittest), or market demand (survival of the marketable). Unfortunately, adaptation to achieve market demand reduces the maintenance that limits entropy.

    When people complain about the watering down of martial arts, what they are seeing is entropy - they shouldn't be surprised if they're not maintaining the highest standards - especially between instructor generations.

  2. Good point, David! Perhaps The (D)Evolution of Karate might have been a better title. :D

  3. Maybe there is no entropy of "Martial Arts" for those arts are based on war, "martial" from "Mars" the god of war. What we have seen is a change from that to a more philosophical "Do" or way. Granted, it may not be the way that was taught 100 yrs ago but it is "a" way. In America it seems that the "Do" is designed around what instructors feel serves those in their community, ways to try and reach the youth of this country that have seemed to have lost their way though it is the family structure that has lost it's way. Ultimately it is the parenting that has strayed from the "Tao" or "Do" or "way". So if this new American way Martial Arts has a positive impact on those that engage in the activity it serves it's purpose or at least serves a purpose.