Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why Karate?

Today marks my family's start at our new dojo, Five Star Martial Arts. For me, it will be the fifth different dojo I've trained at, beginning with Tae Kwon Do under Albert Fortunato, then Aikido under Sensei Yousuf Mehter, then at LaVallee's Clay dojo, over the summer at the remarkable Syracuse Jundokan under Sensei David Oddy, and finally at Five Star under Senseis Paul Napoli and Curtis Pastore.

Last Friday, we earned our orange belts at LaVallee's, the culmination of four months of training and vigorous exercise. We enjoy our training in the martial arts, but the change in dojos got me to thinking about why. Why do we train? What's the point? Why spend so much time and effort in this pursuit?

For starters, it's something that my wife and I have some experience with, which isn't true of most other sports or athletic activities. Which doesn't really answer the question, it just pushes the timeframe back by twenty-five years or so. So why did we get involved in the martial arts back in the 80s? I won't try to answer for my wife, but for me it was something that always looked "cool." I'd grown up watching Chinese Kung-fu movies on Saturday afternoons, I'd loved movies like Enter the Dragon and Revenge of the Ninja, and the idea that I could train my overweight, out-of-shape body to be like those martial arts champions was very exciting.

Yet, the reality didn't exactly live up to the vision. I picked up on the basics quickly and easily, but even vigorous exercise several times a week doesn't seem to affect my weight, and my flexibility has always been terrible. I'm just not built like a movie-star martial artist and it's not likely that I ever will be. So, again, why bother? Why stick with it?

The short answer is that I haven't really stuck with it. I trained for around a year when I was 15, then I quit. I trained for another year when I was 21, then I quit. I trained for six months at LaVallee's, two months at Syracuse Jundokan, and now I'm starting at Five Star and I'll be training there for at least a year. I've never stuck with any one style long enough to master more than the most rudimentary basics (and even then, master is surely an exaggeration), yet for some reason I keep coming back.

Of course, I still think it's cool. And, somewhere in the back of my mind, I surely still picture myself as Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris - an image that will be very hard to maintain at the new dojo, since we face toward a wall of mirrors and visible evidence is pretty clear that I am NOT those heroic figures. I'm their frumpy sidekick.

I've always been fascinated by the orient, and especially their development of a unique set of combat techniques and weapons that are so unlike what you find in the West. You'd think that there are only so many ways to throw a punch or a kick, and yet in thousands of years of civilization the Western civilization developed nothing that looks like Eastern martial arts. And while it's fair to say that Damascus Steel bears similarity to the folded steel that went into making the famed swords of the Samurai knights of Japan, the way those swords were used, like most other Asian weapons, was unique to the orient. The history and tradition inherent in the study of the martial arts fascinates me, and brings with it a connection to people who, over the last thousand years, devoted their lives to perfecting these techniques - these strikes, blocks, and movements - in such a way that they combine the beauty and gracefulness of dance with the athletics of gymnastics and the effectiveness of the deadliest combat arts. This connection with the mists of time is a big part of my interest.

Also, I'm reasonably good at the martial arts, at least given the amount of training that I've had. Again, I'm not amazing - nobody's ever going to look at me and be impressed by my athleticism, but I'm not a complete klutz, either. That makes karate different for me than pretty much every other sport, because when it comes to basketball and football, I'm utterly hopeless, even dangerous.

Plus, when I practice the martial arts, I feel like I'm getting exercise and improved overall fitness - something that's totally lacking elsewhere in my life. I don't like to exercise. I don't like the feeling of being worn out, nor do I enjoy the soreness the next day (or several days) as my muscles rebuild. I'm imperfectly happy sitting in my easy chair - imperfectly, that is, because I'd like to be in good shape, I just don't enjoy anything about the process that's required to achieve that. I don't like to stretch, to lift weights, or to hit the heavy bag. You could even say that I hate it. But when I practice the martial arts, all of that exercise is blended into the process of learning the techniques and executing them. My enthusiasm for all of the other aspects of the workout help me to overlook the parts that I truly don't like, and I end up getting some exercise. In turn, this should, in theory, lead to improved overall fitness - better flexibility, more endurance, enhanced vigor, strength and speed. As I get older, the more I can get of those things, the better off I'll be.

The martial arts also bring with them mental and spiritual aspects that many people, myself included, find worthwhile. Mentally, they help improve focus and concentration, as well as traits like self-discipline and tenacity. Spiritually, many practitioners of the martial arts find that intensive training and study improve their control of their body's energy and there are whole disciplines within the martial arts that focus on promoting the healthful flow of energy and the connection of mind with spirit. Granted, many American dojos don't emphasize these aspects, but it's there to be explored by those who are interested.

So that's my take on the martial arts - you get to vent your stress and frustrations through fun, vigorous exercise, you get to build a healthy body, it improves your mind and your connection with your spirit, and it connects you with the traditions and history of the East. My plan at this point is to finally stick with the martial arts for the long haul, bringing my kids along with me and encouraging them to explore all the things that I find so enjoyable. What are your thoughts on the martial arts? Feel free to comment!


  1. Well, technically karate is not a martial art, so I don't really see my training as martial. For me, I like the direct application of combative technique against an non-compliant partner. I like direct (friendly) conflict between two people with a foundation in technical principle - that makes it fun for me.

    I'm not in it for self-defense - i really don't have a need for that in my lifestyle, and to be honest their are diminishing returns in the self-defense value of training after the first decade or two. I don't believe karate makes you a better person any more than any other pursuit of a disciplined skill and my competitive career is several years behind me. Finally, I get my workout at the gym (when I can) using a modern exercise approach...

    So I guess that just leaves my passion for developing a deep technical skill and for membership in a world-wide community of like-minded people.

    Karate is so deeply ingrained in who I am at this point, that it's difficult to even identify what it is specifically that keeps me at it!

    I should also add that as an instructor of what I'll call "authentic karate", I feel a deep commitment and obligation to make sure that the practice of effective Okinawan karate doesn't get lost among the clutter of today's commercialized martial arts.

    Somewhat rambling, but that pretty much sums up what I get out of karate.

  2. Hey Dave, I wonder if you might elaborate on the statement that "technically karate is not a martial art"? Both what I'd call "common understanding" of the terms, as well as the definitions I've found for both, seem to suggest that it is. What's your take?

  3. Martial arts implies a military context. Karate is for civilian defense against other civilians. Typically the term "martial art" would be used more for the koryu arts (iaido, kyudo, etc.) that have true military origins. Training for war is distinctly different from training for personal protection - different context, different objectives, armor, weapons, etc.

    It is obviously a well-used term so you're right that the common understanding is of a martial art, but this doesn't make it right. There has also grown to be a spirit of "budo" in karate, just as in the true martial arts of Japan, and since budo is often mis-translated as "martial art" this adds to the confusion.

    The term "martial art" applied to karate leads to two problems as I see it:

    Firstly it confuses both the context and the objective for students and leads them to have poor expectations for what to expect from their training at best and to get into MAJOR trouble if attacked at worst.

    Secondly it is misunderstood to be "performance art" or "fine art" rather than an art of mastery (medical arts, etc.) This not only turns people's practice into performance art as an objective (i.e. unrealistic kata) but it then gives them license to do so under the banner of artistic expression undermining the effectiveness of training methods and discrediting karate as a valid and useful approach to personal protection.

    Of course, in my original reply, I forgot to mention that I really like working out in bare feet while wearing white pajamas and a thick belt that I constantly need to tug on!!

  4. A little more about military verses personal protection:

    The general mission of the USMC for example:

    "Locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, and to repel the enemy's assault by fire and close-combat."

    Mission of personal protection:

    "Avoid, escape and survive a violent encounter, and then get home safely."

    These are two very different approaches and the training for them must be very different. Whether you're a rifleman (or swordsman) on the battlefield or a general orchestrating grand strategic plans, the context in which you operate is so much different from that considered in karate.

    In fact, it might even be said that to consider karate a martial art is not only bad for the students of karate, but also somewhat insulting to those putting their lives and the lives of others at risk on the battlefield!

    Hope that helps... :)

  5. Dave - that definitely makes it clearer, yes. Thanks!

    I can definitely see where you're coming from and it makes a kind of sense to me. However, in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "I do not think it means what you think it means." The problem is that as much as it might make sense for "Martial Arts" to mean "the study of warfare and combat," that's simply not how the phrase is used or defined in the English language. If you say to somebody, "I'm practicing the martial arts," there's zero-percent chance, regardless of their military or civilian background, that they're going to interpret that to mean, "I'm going to learn to drive an M1A1 Abrams Tank," or "I'm going to get some time on the firing range with a TOW missile." Nor will they interpret it as "I'm going to study small unit tactics for a reconnaissance in force." The term "martial arts" has come to mean (and, as far as I can tell, has always meant) the study and/or practice of Asian (or Asian-style) hand-to-hand and melee-weapon combat techniques, such as karate, kung-fu, muay-thai, kendo, judo, and so on.

    None of which invalidates your position that karate is of arguably questionable value for personal self-defense or for close-quarters combat (though I see that the Corps has its own Martial Arts program, colorfully nicknamed Semper Fu, so clearly somebody in the Commandant's Office thinks there's value in it), but I think it's definitely a stretch for our professional fighting men and women to take offense at the term. They shouldn't because it refers to something completely unrelated to their defense of our nation's liberty.

  6. That's not what I said... I don't question the value of karate for personal self-defense - that's exactly what it's for... What it is NOT designed for is defeating armed and trained opponents on the battlefield and this invalidates it as a martial art.

    Yes it would be a stretch for them to find offense... I guess what I was getting at is that true study of martial art is a lot more intense, broad and focused on achieving military objectives than what karate offers. In Japan, the training of koryu (truly considered martial art) is markedly different from what you will see in a karate dojo.

    Karate is not a battlefield art and yet many modern commercial demos make it look like it could be. Aside from other intangible benefits that people seek to achieve, the combative context for karate is in surviving a violent criminal assault, not winning street fights or military conflict.

    It could all be semantics, but I'm very interested in seeing karate well-represented as what it is and not what people think will excite potential students. There is tremendous depth and effectiveness to karate when properly taught and practiced, so it is important that such proper practice doesn't get lost in the clutter.

    Japanese/Okinawan fighting styles can basically be considered in three groups and are typically trained at different facilities:

    1) Koryu arts of Japan (methods of military origin)
    2) Kobudo arts of Okinawa (civilian weapons training for defense against armed opponents)
    3) Karate of Okinawa (civilian unarmed defense from criminal assaults)

  7. Ah, I think I see it a bit more clearly, then. I think you're partly right that it's semantics, as we're really talking about "meaning." But I think it's also one of culture - the term Martial Arts in English has a meaning in English. There must surely be an equivalent or near-equivalent term in the Japanese language, but it either doesn't translate exactly, or it doesn't carry the same cultural meaning, or both.

    Which is to say that your usage of "Martial Arts" as equivalent to "Military Combat Techniques" may be entirely appropriate in Japanese, but it's not consistent with the meaning and cultural usage of the term in English and in Western Culture.

    That said, I do think I see where you're coming from - that the function/purpose/spirit of karate ought not be diluted by some of what's ascribed to it through its commercialization. I think that taking issue about the usage of the phrase "Martial Art" may be more apt to confuse people than educate them, however, as any Western, English-language dictionary or similar reference source you're going to find (I checked quite a few) will state that the term is synonymous with karate and similar styles. Moreover, I don't think it's really the term "martial art" that's detrimental to the proper representation and practice of karate. People who bother to think about Asian unarmed combat techniques know that, in a modern sense, it's got nothing (or very little) to do with military combat training (though, again, Semper Fu). Your valiant crusade, I think, is against commercialized schools who might persuade their students to think that they ARE being trained to be Rambo or the guy from that crummy movie Gymkata.

    Although, I suppose that arguing "Karate is not a martial art" may get more attention than arguing "Karate should be properly taught and practiced." It's a good fight that you're fighting, so hopefully you'll have great success with whatever tactic you choose to exercise.

  8. I really don't take too much issue with it. Just for my own purposes, I don't consider myself to be a "martial artist" since I don't profess to pursue a military discipline. I love karate for what it is, but if others choose to label themselves "martial artists" then who am I to say they are wrong.

    It was just an opening thought to your original question, and something that I think karateka should understand. It is important for them to know the historical context of what they train in order for what they learn to have relevance and to be useful.

  9. Following up: The best Japanese translation would be "bujitsu" (art of war) of which karate-do would definitely not be considered a member by Japanese.

    Anyway, many things get lost in and mis-categorized in translation between languages and cultures so no real worries there as long as competent instructors do their job and educate their students as to context and not just technique. The technique is only relevant and effective in context after all.

    This thread all comes about from my original response in which I stated that I don't consider myself to be a martial artist - I still hold to that, but don't expect others to follow - it's up to them and their training approach.

  10. As always, a very thoughtful analysis, Dave. The martial arts community (or whatever term you'd use to describe the practitioners of all these various styles) is fortunate to have someone like you who challenges us to think about our training, to dig into it and pull it apart, to break it down and then put it back together again. Thank you!