Wednesday, December 1, 2010

[Karate] Karate Confusion

The Martial Arts world is like most other avocations - there's a lot to learn, a lot of information to sift through, and a fair amount of misinformation floating around making it hard to know what's what. There's a lot out there that assumes you already know more than you do, and plenty of conflicting info as well. I'm sure it's no different with stamp-collecting or professional sports. Instead of teams and player statistics and coaches, we've got styles and katas and grand-masters to keep track of.

Because of my interest in the Martial Arts, I'd like to learn more about the styles I'm learning. Actually, I'd love to really understand a wide array of different styles - their similarities, their differences, their histories, etc. Heck, even things like uniforms differ from style to style and even school to school. It appears, for instance, that practitioners of Iaido, the Japanese art of drawing the Samurai sword, cutting with it, shaking off the blood and resheathing the blade in a very smooth and precise fashion, may wear a dogi that includes pants, a pleated pair of wide leggings called a hakama, a gi top, and an undertunic which is similar to the gi-top but with shorter sleeves. How do I know that? Well, I kind of don't - I inferred it from looking at Iaido uniforms for sale on one martial arts supplier's website.

But, if we assume it's true, it's a very different gi than that worn in most karate styles. The hakama is rarely seen in karate, and the gi is typically a light-weight or medium-weight cotton with leggings and a gi-top. More traditional dojos tend to use plain white with a logo or patch on the seam, breast or shoulder, while Americanized dojos may use uniforms of any weight, color or material, and they may even have tunic-style tops rather than the traditional wrap-around style. In Aikido, the gi is usually heavyweight, white, and reinforced on top. The hakama is common for women of all ranks, and for men who have attained the rank of shodan (black belt) or above. But some Aikido schools allow the wearing of the hakama at any rank. Among those styles that wear the hakama, blue and black are most common, though there's also white and red available. I have no idea who wears those, but it's worth noting that the Samurai were the original wearers of the hakama, I believe, and they wore a wide array of different colors, patterns and styles. So, technically, pretty much anything ought to be fair game if you want to get really historical. On the other hand, dressing as a true Samurai, in addition to being presumptuous in the extreme, is probably akin to dressing for the Renaissance Faire. It's technically still clothing, but it's hundreds of years out of fashion.

And anyway, all that's JUST the clothing worn by a handful of different styles to keep track of.

Now imagine trying to understand the lineage of teachers of those styles, where they came from, when they borrowed from each other, what's traditionally "real" and what was recently "made up" (which is funny in that it implies that the older techniques weren't, at one time or another, brand new and "made up" as well). It's all so much!

Still, some styles are clearer than others. Aikido, for instance, is less than a hundred years old. There are living people who trained under the founder of the style. There are still questions and disagreements, of course, particularly because the founder changed certain aspects of the style as he got older - either reflecting his belief system, the limitations of his aging body, or both. Likewise, Goju-Ryu karate has a very clear lineage that only goes back two or three generations, making it relatively easy to identify what its founder intended and actually taught. You'd think American Kenpo Karate would be as easy, having seemingly been created in the 1960s and 1970s, but you'd be wrong.

I'm currently practicing Kenpo, so I'd like to start by getting a handle on my chosen style. I know, for instance, who my Senseis trained under, and I know from his bio who their chief instructor, Kyoshi Steve LaVallee, trained under, but I can't find anything significant about Master Lee Thompson, who was Kyoshi's original teacher. Do I practice the Ed Parker style of Kenpo? Hawaiian Kenpo? Okinawan or Japanese Kenpo? Chinese Kenpo? Hell if I know.

I mean, I can infer some of it. For example, by searching Youtube videos of some of our katas, I can see practitioners of other Kenpo styles doing katas with similar names that also look very similar to ours. Most of those seem to be Ed Parker practitioners, which leads me to believe that what I'm learning is probably descended from him. I could try perhaps to contact Kyoshi LaVallee directly and see what he has to say on the topic, and I very well may, but just trying to even define what constitutes Ed Parker Kenpo seems to generate a considerable amount of debate on the old Internet.

I recently happened across the Kenpo Talk Forums, and I've decided to delve into what they have to offer in terms of knowledge and historical information about the style. If it's helpful, I'll post what I learn here.

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