by Carl Hoffman

The concept of going back to the old ways, of original karate, of "re-engineering" original, "real" karate before it was watered down, spoiled, commercialized, introduced to public school students, etc., is a constant theme these days.

As is the question of change itself, and the seeming contradiction between conservative traditionalists who believe that we shouldn't change kata and the obvious fact that kata changes, and has changed - and did so long before we westerners got involved.

But the problem is, as (name removed) and others have stated, we have no idea of what that "original" karate is, or was. Beyond pure speculation we have a mere handful of photos, films and books by guys like Funakoshi - but even they date back only a few decades.

Ippon-ken. Karate Jutsu,
Gichin Funakoshi, 1925

If we are to be truthful we simply can't speculate. We have to go by what we know. And what I know is this:

I am 46 years old. I began training in karate in 1970 when I was ten years old under one teacher, and he is my teacher today. I have trained under no one else. My teacher began studying karate on Okinawa in early 1960, and he has trained under two men only in the past 46 years.

When he started training in 1960 he was the first American student of both his teachers. Neither had an association; neither taught karate as a business; they taught karate for one reason, and one reason only: themselves. They taught the way they had been taught; they studied and trained the way they wanted to study and train - they had no concern for keeping students or paying the dojo rent or building an association. They taught in their homes and, since my teacher was the first American, they taught him just like they taught everyone else.

Their karate at that moment in time was pure; pure in the sense that it had not been changed for commercial purposes, or to address a fad, or to compete in tournaments, or to appeal to Westerners.

We have no idea how that karate was different from karate taught in 1800 or 1850 or 1930; we only know what it was like then, at that moment in time. But we know that however it was at that moment it was purely "Okinawan" and purely uncommercial.

So what was that "old" karate like? They did tens of thousands of repetitions of basic techniques; tens of thousands of walking drills with, and without, a partner; they did huge amounts of makiwara work, lots of kata and kote, lots of fighting; and they did it all in a progression that emphasized closed fists and hard blocks long before, for instance, ANY open hand techniques. Beginners, and by beginners I mean even lower dan ranks, were not taught nerve strikes or so called pressure points and the plethora of so-called "real" karate techniques not because they didn't exist, or because they had watered the system down for school kids, but because in the traditional hierarchy of Asian societies, especially dealing with deadly fighting techniques, beginners didn't deserve those techniques. They hadn't proved their loyalty to their teachers, to the system; their bodies were not conditioned enough and their skills not high enough to understand and make use of those techniques.

My teacher studied under only those two men until he left Okinawa in 1964. I started under him in 1970; in 1974 he held a one-week summer camp and a handful of his teacher's latest students, fresh off the island, showed up.

Their karate was profoundly changed; it bore scant resemblance to what my teacher had learned just a decade earlier. My teacher's teacher had long since quit his job and become a full-time karate teacher; he was building an association; he had hundreds (and would soon have thousands) of American students, and gone, ironically, were all the hard basics, the mind-numbing repetition, replaced by much-more-exciting-to-train, so called advanced techniques; the cart was now before the horse, and that's how everyone liked it. Except their karate was a shadow of the past.

What had really changed wasn't even so much techniques themselves, but the way they were taught, and the order in which they were taught. Gone was the intensity, the repetition, the hardness, the patience required to do basics over and over and over again until you were ready for something else - all the things that Westerners didn't like.

Now, 30 years later, I have been privileged to witness one man's changes. My teacher says he changes nothing. Will never change anything; will teach as he was originally taught. But changes creep in; you can't stop them. He was taught a move in a kata; he thinks about that move, tries to understand it, is asked what it's for. He gives an answer, as he best understands it at a given moment. I have seen tapes of him soon after his return from Okinawa; I have seen him last week. There are differences. Differences in timing; small changes in targets...

BUT, there is a big difference, I think, in those changes that inevitably creep in and wholesale changes that you yourself initiate because you think you know better, or because you just want to put your stamp on a kata. It's because we know change creeps in that we try our best to preserve without change.

The problem with change is that the more casual we are about it, the more we risk dissolution of something that we may not - yet - understand.

One of my teacher's two teachers was the head of the system. He had his own versions of certain kata, kata that, as far as we can tell, he had changed. That was his prerogative - he had 80 years of study. Today, we do the original version and HIS version. We do both. Again, it's not that change is necessarily bad, but that a too-casual attitude about it risks chaos and the loss of something that may be important.

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Courtesy & with permission Carl Hoffman from CyberDojo Post

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