Tag Archives: karate

Followup: Practical History

Thank you for breaking down the types of martial art schools. My brother and I attended the same school, but our focus made us take different classes with different instructors. I was being bullied and hit every day, so I took a lot of sel-defense and practical applications classes. I still learned katas, but they were secondary to my goal. My brother learned how to do beautiful katas, but he hated getting in a ring. Outlook and preparedness is everything, and something people overlook.

You’re illustrating something that I accidentally skimmed over; almost any martial art can be taught with a practical outlook. This isn’t just things like Muay Thai, where the application is obvious, it includes martial arts you wouldn’t expect, like Tai-Chi.

The key here is having an instructor who can teach you to apply what you’re learning in a real world context.

Karate is an easy example to dogpile on. Almost all practitioners you’ll find today will be recreational ones. You will find a great many who can’t apply what they know outside of the Dojo. Except, Karate wasn’t developed for self-defense, it was developed for guerrilla warfare.

Karate is not a Japanese martial art, it’s Okinawan. It’s easy to conflate these now, but this becomes a very important distinction when you look at Karate’s history. Okinawa was formally annexed by Japan in the Nineteenth Century, and the original Japanese invasion and vassalization of Okinawa dates back to the early Seventeenth Century. (I’m skimming over a lot of the history; if you’re interested, you should read up on this.)

Because of this, the Japanese were seen as an occupying force, and Karate was specifically adapted to kill Samurai. (Okay, I’m being a little reductive here, Karate technically dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, though, much of what we have today is a result of these adaptations.)

The modern incarnation, dating back to the Japanese vassalization of Okinawa, is designed to interdict and preempt entire segments of a Samurai’s combat training. Not all of this will be relevant today, and I wouldn’t recommend a low strike to prevent your opponent from cross-drawing a gun, but it will directly block an Iaido practitioner’s draw. (Note: I’m extending the definition of, “modern Karate” further back than normal. “Modern Karate,” usually starts with the founding of Shotokan in the mid-twentieth century,)

When we’re talking self-defense, Karate’s probably not going to be the right tool for the job, But, this is a martial art that was originally developed to kill people, and some of that can still be applied to interrupt and disable an assailant. The underlying combat philosophy of preventing your opponent from attacking with preemptive strikes has real applications. If you can understand how to bring this stuff into the real world, it’s viable. However, because it requires staying ahead of your opponent, you really need to know what you’re doing. That’s the weakness, this was designed to deal with foes who would act in very predictable patterns. If you don’t know what your opponent will do before they act, the value suffers.

That’s an example I’m personally familiar with, however, there are a lot stories like this, where a martial art started out as a method to kill or incapacitate your foes, and has gradually transitioned into something else. Again, if this stuff interests you, read up on it. Some martial arts have fascinating histories.

-Starke

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“Martial arts each come with their own personal philosophies and ideologies, there’s an inherent outlook that changes how a student perceives the world around them as they train.” Can you tell me more about what they are for specific martial arts, at least those you know well? I think of starting to give my characters martial arts that fits their worldviews and personalities.

It might not sound like it, but this is really a very complicated question. The short answer is “no.” And, I’ve been wrestling with this question for awhile, honestly.

The problem is, a martial arts’ philosophy is baked in by the people that created it. Their philosophies were, in turn, influenced by their culture, and the world they lived in.

There are a few forms, like Tai Chi, MAP and Krav Maga that are fairly open about their philosophical cores. The vast majority however, don’t really articulate their philosophy directly. The reason for this is that the philosophy overall will be learned by practicing the martial art and become ingrained in the student over time. As the student advances in rank, they will begin to think about the martial art and how it applies to their own life. This is the point where the martial art’s internal philosophy is actively considered, but usually only as it applies to the individual student as part of their growth. In isolation, a martial art’s philosophy is nice but not relevant. The philosophies tend to make more sense once you know the context of where they’re from, why they were developed, and what the martial art was used for.

For example: Karate was originally developed in Okinawa and has a long martial tradition that predates the invasion and occupation by the Japanese. During the occupation, the martial art evolved to directly subvert the martial techniques of the Samurai. That’s traditional Aikido, Jujitsu, and the other Samurai martial arts. The recognizable Okinawan weapons, such as the nunchaku, and sai are not only designed to utterly subvert the traditional martial weapons of the Japanese like the katana and kill the occupying Samurai, but to do so with weapons that are not distinctly recognizable as weapons. Weapons which can be carried in plain sight carried by people who were risking death merely for owning them. In modern day Japan, the multiple variants of Karate are incredibly popular and have been adopted as part of the Japanese cultural tradition. While each vein of of Karate remembers it’s past differently, all come from a past struggle against an occupying force.

If you don’t know the history of Japan and Okinawa, or believe that the islands of Japan have always been one nation, then understanding the philosophy is going to be much harder.

I’ve said before, one of the central tenants of Aikido is the Dynamic Sphere. It is about making yourself the eye of the storm and encouraging the world to revolve around you. Now, from a purely American perspective, this draws up images of being selfish and self-centered (particularly for women). It’s worth remembering in translation that this is not a question of importance, it’s a function of the martial art’s physical philosophy. In practice, Aikido is not a mobile martial art. It works by creating a base connection to the earth, by stabilizing the body’s energy, and using this tranquility to turn the attacker’s force against them. This is where the eye of the storm metaphor comes from, the raging storm is defined by active, violent winds. At it’s center, the eye is peaceful and balanced. The struggle of the Aikido student is in becoming that center, in achieving their own balance with the world around them.

I’m being poetic, but the basic idea is sound.

Karate is about creating an irresistible force that cannot be diverted and driving forward through all obstacles. On the surface, they seem completely unrelated, but the ancestor of one informed the other.

If at this point, you’re starting to feel pretty good, I have to remind you that we are only discussing these philosophies on a basic, surface level. The Orientalism of Star Wars is that the philosophy of the Force is based on the Tao. Many of the pop cultural, quasi-mystical training soundbites we get from a thousand different authors aping the 1980s Karate Kid, Star Wars, and similar films are bastardizations of real training mentalities. Honest to god, the concept of being a stone in the river has a real place in some martial arts.

What you’re really asking is, “who are these people of Earth?”

Here’s the truth: every human civilization in history has fought. Every civilization has, at one time, been forced to answer “what does all this death and destruction mean to me?” The splintered philosophies of those peoples to violence are scattered across thousands of different answers throughout human history.

What are the philosophies of the various marital arts? We all are. And, I’m sorry if that sounds pretentious or pseudo-mystical, but all of the various civilizations have answered that question differently.

-Starke