Is still Karate a Martial Art?

Italiano ♦ English

It happens more often, nowadays, to meet Karate practitioners, including high-grade ones, who have no familiarity with the art of fighting. I am not referring to the curious phenomenon of the “separation of careers” among those who, while still calling himself a karateka, choose to specialize only in kata or kumite. Sometimes even those who practice exclusively kumite, put in front of a real conflict situation, show to have not the necessary skill to handle the situation. This state of affairs, according to some, is the inevitable consequence of the Karate sports evolution: fighting for points, actually, is entirely different from fighting to neutralize an opponent or an aggressor. But I am not entirely persuaded about it. The fact that boxing, long before Karate, has become an ordained and marked sport does not prevent a good boxer to be pretty damn effective in real situations. The way I see it, the problem is not the Karate sportivisation but his progressive de-martialization.

Otsuka-2Just try to find a master willing to support that Karate is not a martial art: you will find none. Then try to see and verify in how many dojos they practice Budo Karate and impose their students the uncomfortable way of the warrior (it is worth remembering that martial means warlike). And you will probably find, I guess, that it does not add up.

When I started practicing Karate in 1979 the fights were commonplace. And I’m not talking about sports kumite in red and blue gloves. I mean free fighting, the Juyu-kumite, with no rules or limitations other than those dictated by the very purpose of the combat (training between fellow students, not survival). Those were years when, for how many precautions we could use to eliminate or minimize the contact, karategis were blood stained with some frequency. No one felt it like an attribute of violence to tie Karate with. It was a fact connected to the mere martial art nature. It was simply a normal thing.

But not anymore. There is no doubt that the world has changed. Thirty-five years ago, when I was a child, going back home with a bloody nose, a black eye or a split lip was, if not quite ordinary, certainly not an extraordinary event, greeted by mom and dad with loving care (fresh water, wadding, hydrogen peroxide) but also with amused derision. Today it would become immediately a very big deal. Still, continuing to support in words that Karate is a martial art but refusing to set the teaching in a coherent and consistent way, doesn’t seem an honest operation to my eyes. Moreover, when you subscribe to a boxing course you put in mind of taking a few punches on the nose. If you subscribe to Judo you put in mind of being pulled and thrown to the ground. Why if you subscribe to Karate you do so much effort to put in mind something?

karate1I think this de-martialization (and the consequent abstraction of the techniques, less and less realistic and effective) is the main cause of the relative climate of indifference that, in recent years, seems to surround Karate. Those who want to approach the study of a martial art, finding almost nothing authentically martial in the dojos, look to the gyms, where they see practicing combat sports and self-defense disciplines. That will not be martial, but to their eyes, they teach to fight and to defend themselves. In those contexts, they are enabled to confront themselves in concrete, real, dynamic and conflicting situations. The punches are pulled to strike, as well as the kicks; the grapplings are made to land and project, and those who are grappled try to counter the grappling, not to ease it as sometimes happens in some dojos.

It’s a real shame not to offer to the people potentially interested in Karate the image of a true martial art. Because a martial art includes a philosophical, spiritual and technical baggage that goes beyond any combat sport, any self-defense course. A baggage that – and this is the paradox – makes Karate a non-violent discipline, far more secure, to be practiced, of many other systems.

Japanese Karate is enrolled in the wake of the Budo and fully collect its ancient tradition. A tradition that can be effectively summarized by the motto: “The really good sword is one that remains in its sheath.” But it is good for nothing if we are not able enough to use it.

That peace is the true essence of the training of a warrior”, Hironori Otsuka wrote in his book on the Wado-ryu Karate, “it is a fact that will always remain immutable. But the way in which this fact is manifested varies with the variation of the centuries. The martial arts have to take account of this progress, and ask themselves, as a first objective, the development of human beings endowed with great intellectual abilities and able to control their emotions, their mind, their own bodies”. It seems to be a goal worth to be pursued, isn’t it? But to really achieve it, we need to walk the road of Karate-do, the path of Budo, the way of the Martial Art. And it must be a way of facts and actions, not just words. ♦ Leggilo in italiano

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