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Criticisms of Old Style Karate

Ironically, some people who practiced the standardized form of Karate (whether they knew it to be that or not), had their own criticisms of "old style" Karate.  Some of these that I have heard over the years include the following:

1.  That is "old man" Karate.  The person doing the old style Karate was old.  That is why his body position was mostly upright and his stances were natural and shorter.  He could not take the long, lower stances that had become popular in "modern" Karate.  His pace was slower, and again, more natural.  He was such an "old man".

Reply.  Old style Karate was geared toward personal effectiveness.  Exaggerated movements avoided because they were not very effective.  Natural movements were favored, because self defense was usually done in response to a surprise attack.  Defense and counterattack had to flow from a natural stance and body position/

The "old guys" were not moving the way they did because the were old, but because they were skilled.

2.  It was primitive, village, boonies Karate.

Reply.  Actually, the "old style" Karate was practiced mostly by people from the mid to upper levels of Ryukyuan society.  After the overthrow of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the formation of Okinawa prefecture, and the Meiji Restoration, people in all levels of the society could practice the "new" Karate.  Sometimes the attack against the "old style" high class people was to characterize them as just the opposite.  People who only knew the modern form of Karate wore a cloak of "modernness" and innovation.  New was good and old was bad.

3.  It lacked standardization and consistency, lacked a vocabulary, lacked a testing and ranking system, was not suited for demonstrations and tournaments, in short, it was not modern and professional.

Reply.  Japanese people really liked to be organized and consistent.  The "Japanese spirit" at the time celebrated standardization across the nation/empire.  Being different was bad.  Sameness required standardization and consistency.  If you wanted to be different, you would be hit like a nail that sticks out.

4.  The lack of standards described in item 3 above, was indicative of it being so "Okinawan".

Reply.  Okinawans were different, and the process of assimilation was very painful for many people.  To become "Japanese", one had to conform and modernize.  Karate was sort of like the Japanese response to Western boxing.  But to function in Japanese society, Karate had to be improved and standardized.  That way, a student anywhere could learn the same "Karate"... the "new and improved Karate."

5.  Two people would do the same kata differently.  In fact, the same person might do the same kata different ways at different times.  It was as if the "old style" Karate person could not remember the kata!  Probably because he was so old!

Reply.  Old style Karate was suited to the specific student, at least at an advanced stage.  A kata had many variations and emphases.  An advanced student would perform a kata in the way that best suited him.  And actually, an advanced student might vary the kata depending on who was watching.  I often do this!  Sometimes I leave things out, add things, change my body mechanics, change my timing, etc.  An observer might thing that I messed up (which does happen sometimes) or was just an "old man".  Sometimes a performer of kata might be "dumb like a fox!"  Some of the brightest Karate (and bojutsu) people might feign absent mindedness.

In short, many of the criticisms of "old Karate" were greatly affected by the time period during which Karate "came out" to the public and spread to mainland Japan and the world.  In addition to the timing aspect, there was the Ryukyu, Okinawa, assimilation aspect.  "Old Karate" represented the old Ryukyu society.  To be modern and admired, one had to go along with the standardization process.

Today, we are very fortunate to be able to appreciate Karate, and its practitioners, with an educated, open mind.

To me, what matters most is whether the way a person practices Karate works.  The basis of Karate is self-defense and this must underlay everything.


Charles C. Goodin