There is a famous martial arts quote stating “Follow not in the footsteps of the masters instead seek what they sought”. At face value, this quote is telling you to look for the principles that the old masters were training rather than the techniques. Looking deeper it’s saying look at the master’s goal for training. Was it to win a shiny plastic medal or trophy? Or was it civilian self-defence?
I understand that this is something that has developed over many years, where after world war 2 when karate was taken from the island of Okinawa to mainland Japan certain elements, such as throws and also ground techniques were taken out due to the art of Judo being prevalent and dominant martial art in mainland Japan at the time. Points sparring was taken from Japanese Kendo to add a competitive edge to karate. So from self-defence the goal changed to winning medals and trophies. This is a classic example of the evolution of art to aid its survival. Just as viruses, bacteria and other aspects of nature adapt and evolve to allow the species to survive.
Now arts such as karate are going full circle and returning slowly to their roots of civilian self-defence as their goal rather than defending shiny plastic medals and trophies. The consensus in society is that Karate doesn’t work on the street or in self defence. This is not a fault of the art instead it’s the fault of the practitioners. We are so engrossed in preserving the old way methods that we are neglecting evolution and if we do not change our ways then karate could face the fate of extinction. How can we adapt you ask? Well, look at dated techniques that are less relevant now and place less emphasis on these and look to emphasize more relevant techniques. As an example, let’s look at blocks to straight punches as an opening attack. This may have been a relevant defence for the masters, but now in modern times, we are more likely to face a swinging punch or a hook as an opening strike. This is just one example of how things have changed.
Looking at the topic of sparring and Kumite. Well, the masters didn’t spar as such instead they would practice kata bunkai and Oyo in a form of sparring. This was due to many factors one of which when you are sparring in a dojo you are engaging in consensual violence rather than a form of self defence or self-protection. The reason for this is that in a self defence situation you are not giving consent for the aggressive encounter to begin instead we are being caught by surprise. So how can we build this into our dojo sparring? Well, there are many ways. One of which is by using protective equipment and exercising control you can safely simulate random acts of violence. Another method is through the practice of kata and understanding of both bunkai and Oyo. Practicing the kata in a pretty fashion where stances must be super low and perfect has its place for self-mastery and discipline, but for self defence, this is not as necessary. Your focus should be along the lines of body mechanics, power generation, and impact. Also by emphasizing these elements you will develop an effective technique that can be used in a combative situation if necessary.
By adopting some of these ideas we can help save karate and change the view of society. If this view is not changed then it is very possible that karate will become a distant memory and it will not be seen as self defence instead as a dance or an art form with no combative use. So remember it’s down to us the future masters to set the tone of what the future of karate will be.