Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Shotokan Karate: What Happened?









         Gichin Funakoshi was a school teacher and Karate student from Okinawa, who introduced Karate to Japan and the world.  You and I are talking about Karate because of Funakoshi, and Funakoshi alone.  Kano invented belts, but Funakoshi put them in Karate, along with Kano's Kyu-Dan system.  Do you wear belts? You're welcome (says Funakoshi).  There is literally no Martial Artist as important to Karate as Funakoshi, other than the actual founders of Karate (whom he studied under).  So, why doesn't anyone practice the Karate he worked so hard to
Funakoshi in his younger years.
teach?  Not even his Taikyoku Kata?  I would say it's about one percent of schools that teach the Kata Funakoshi himself created.  Funakoshi was essentially the first person to write a book about Karate, even among the first few to think to spell it as "empty hand" instead of "Chinese hand". He literally gave us text books on Karate as he learned and taught it at his school, the Shotokan.  Funakoshi only taught his art as "Karate".  He did not teach a style of Karate, though if hard pressed he would refer to it as Shorei style or Shorin style, or a mixture.  But, after Funakoshi's death, his students insisted on referring to their style of Karate as the style taught at the Shotokan.  Or, Shotokan style Karate.  So, despite not wanting a style, he taught his Karate so specifically that a certain style emerged.  Though oddly, even then, that style looked absolutely nothing like what Funakoshi actually taught at the Shotokan school.  So let's begin with an overview of the differences between Funakoshi's "unnamed" Karate and Shotokan Karate currently practiced; to help us figure out what happened to Funakoshi's Karate.  













  • The stances changed dramatically  In Funakoshi's first book, or at least first surviving book, KarateJutsu, he demonstrates several Kata, as well as some basics.  His stances are all very high and practical.  While he had already begun to shift his Cat Stances in
Kata to a modified Cat/Back Stance it is nowhere near the current idea of a Shotokan Back Stance.  His Karate still looked fairly Okinawan.  By the time of Nakayama's Best Karate series (pretty much the modern text books of Shotokan, and excellent books) Shotokan had come to mean something very different from Okinawan Karate.  The stances took on a much more Judo/Kendo inspired feel, perhaps owing to Kano's early influence and assistance.  It seems easier to convert people already familiar with those stances to Karate if you adapt it to use some of those same fundamentals.  And why not?  To the old-time Masters, things like stances didn't matter the way they do here (and now).  To Funakoshi, is a Cat Stance that different from his version of Back Stance?  But his Back Stance is closer to the Hanmi of Kendo than Cat Stance is.  If it helps your art get a foot hold with a public that has never heard of it, why not?  








  • The various hand techniques are reduced to very few  This is true of most modern Shotokan schools, and not necessarily all of them, but no one really practices or uses anything other than Reverse Punch.  An occasional Ridge Hand, or Back Fist, but 90% of training is Reverse Punch.  Funakoshi's original writings mention a fair variety of hand techniques; Nishiyama and Brown's Karate has an awful lot of varied and very Okinawan techniques.  Nakayama's books preserve these techniques as well, even if they are presented in the way least like how Funakoshi would have taught them.  Why then, aren't they really being taught or drilled in Shotokan classes?  I've studied several different styles that claim to have Shotokan as a part or entirety of their system, including JKA schools, and other "pure" Shotokan schools, but no one ever does anything beyond Reverse Punch/Back Fist/Ridge Hand.  That goes for blocking as well.  Very rarely do
    Funakoshi demonstrating alternates to reverse punch.
    you see much beyond the very basics, and certain techniques seem bound to certain stances, like Knife Hand Block with Back Stance to Spear Hand.  Like you can't use Spear Hand any other time than from that position.  Or using Knife Hand Block from anything but Back Stance.  Never do you see Shotokan guys using Kakuto Uke.  Yet, Nakayama even taught it.  Here are the JKA's Dan requirements. Where are the Tiger Mouths, Ox Jaw Hands, Back Hands, Ippon Ken, Kakuto, Keito, eye pokes, throws, etc?  Funakoshi taught all of that.  His students taught all of that.  Where did it go?  Tournament Karate and point fighting are to blame for the overall lack of quality in Karate today.  The pioneers of point fighting were excellent at point fighting (and contact for that matter), but their point fighting was impressive because of their Karate.  Those guys trained in all of the real techniques, and they trained hard.  Then when they "played" Karate against each other they only used legal techniques.  The problem is, that became all that was important to anyone.  It shaped their idea of what to expect from Karate when they signed up, only training to be good at Tournament Karate.  The old methods are falling away from us, and the reputation of Karate as ineffective is based on this Karate.
  • The lowness of stances  Funakoshi began demonstrating a trend towards this in his later years, reflecting the changes around him rather than being outpaced by them.  It was his son that was largely responsible for the initial changes that were perhaps best
    Funakoshi demonstrating the product of the University Clubs'
    influence on what would be known as Shotokan.  Compare
    to KarateJutsu above.
    exemplified by Nakayama and Nishiyama in their books.  As a direct result of the youthful vigor of the University Karate Clubs, a preference for very low stances and large, powerful movements developed.  Not to mention Flying Side Kicks.  But, we'll save those for their own article.  You can argue for or against low stances, but you can't argue that it wasn't a change from Funakoshi's original Karate.
  • No Makiwara  Not in any Shotokan school I've been in. Funakoshi is a clear advocate of them, even including instructions on how to construct them.  But for some reason, most
    Funakoshi says punch these...
    Shotokan schools don't use them.  I suspect because it's unnecessary for tournaments, and/or fear of injury law suits.
  • No Throwing Techniques  Perhaps with all of the MMA emphasis this is changing, but if so, it's people thinking they are "adding" it to Karate.  Throwing has always been a part of Karate and a part of all Okinawan fighting prior to Karate.  Also, Jujutsu, and even Judo predate Karate, so throwing was well known at the time that Karate was really becoming Karate.  But, again there is no real use for throwing techniques in tournaments, so they're nice to know, but...   Many people have learned their Karate without the concept of throwing, and then say it isn't effectual because it doesn't teach grappling.  Sometimes if something is missing it is because it is truly lacking.  But sometimes if something is missing it is because your training is not complete.  
  • Breaking Things   Funakoshi deplored the idea of breaking tiles and boards.  He said "are we not disappointed that such things as the
    Not these...
    breaking of boards and tiles, or jumping and bouncing around, are recently mistakenly thought to be the essence of karate-do?"  Nishiyama's book shows him breaking boards, circa 1959, two years after Funakoshi's death.  Nishiyama was a direct student of Funakoshi.
  • No Taikyoku Kata  Funakoshi created these Kata as an introductory Kata, yet very few schools have these Kata.  Granted, they aren't spectacular Kata, but when naming a system in honor of someone's teachings, one tends to include some of their teachings.  These were Funakoshi's legacy and they could very well have disappeared.    




  • As someone that grew up with admiration for Shotokan, and grew up learning Shotokan Kata and technique, I was very disappointed when I started reading about Funakoshi and reading the various Shotokan books available.  I was disappointed that there was so much missing from my training that was so clearly part of the system only a few years prior.  I thought it was insulting to ignore it and act like it isn't a part of the teaching.  That was when I decided that I didn't want to study JKA Shotokan any longer.  I think they are truly excellent at what they teach, and I admire and applaud their training and instructor training programs.  There are also a lot of excellent full contact Shotokan guys.  But, for me, it is important to train and study what the Masters taught.  So to get closer to Funakoshi, I had to leave Shotokan behind.   My aim here is to draw attention to the fact that Funakoshi brought a lot more to Karate than he is often recognized for, and that it is the fault of Tournament Karate for removing so much of Karate's real content and reducing it to punch/block/kick.  It saddens me that Shotokan has gone down the very path Funakoshi feared and prophesied as a result of an emphasis on sport fighting.  Funakoshi said "When one becomes enthusiastic about sparring, there is a tendency for his Kata to become bad."  In other words, he will focus only on techniques useful for sparring and neglect the lessons of Kata, which are not applicable to sparring with each other.  And worse yet, that they will begin to think the movements of their Kata are for sparring.  Karate is Kata.  If your Kata is bad, your Karate is bad.  And that is exactly where Funakoshi's Karate has ended up: bad.  Training for the ability to be judged in point sparring, or on the beauty of the performance of your Kata as art, is about form over function.  The snap of the gi, the volume of the kiai, the pacing of your transitions for dramatic effect, the lowness of stances, big swinging gestures, all serve no purpose other than looking cool.  For many years Tae Kwon Do instructors would claim that it was a centuries old Korean art, and that the forms were ancient.  Then people started realizing it was just Shotokan Karate with a new back story, and some reworked techniques.  Likewise, a lot of Shotokan instructors like to re-imagine Shotokan's history and say things like "those techniques were removed by Funakoshi (sometimes Itosu) to teach school children so they aren't in Shotokan."
    Many argue that Karate lost its "intricate" or "deadly" techniques when they were removed by Funakoshi,
      We know this isn't true because Funakoshi shows them in his books, and they're in the books of his students as well, implying that he taught them.  Of course, if you buy a translation of Funakoshi's masterwork, The Karate-Do Kyohan, you will find that while Funakoshi himself demonstrates everything in the original book, the translator demonstrates everything in this book.  This is essential to not alerting a modern student to the fact that they are not learning Funakoshi's art.  They went so far as to remove a stance that Funakoshi included, the T Stance, and replaced it with a stance created for sparring, the Fudo Dachi (which is basically a Front Stance lead leg with a Horse Stance rear leg to help you bounce around and look tough and ready.  The kind of bouncing around that Funakoshi spoke out against along with tile breaking).  What would Funakoshi think of where his Karate has ended up.  Why is it that Funakoshi's teachings have been so changed and mutated and twisted, yet attributed to him nonetheless?  To me it is somewhat disrespectful to disregard so much of Funakoshi's teachings, and then cite him as your founder.  If you are a Shotokan stylist, and you find your school lacking in the things originally within the system, do yourself a favor and augment your training.  Fill in the voids, don't just blame Karate for it's shortcomings.  Study another system, or add to your system.  Read the Shotokan books written by the old masters.  They knew Karate.  What are you learning?  

    1 comment:

    1. Excellent article but it seems incongruous with your open letter to Bunkai researchers. Which implies the letter is based on a distorted view of what most Bunkai research does ie hold striking at the core of the art.

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