Friday, October 23, 2015

Marketing, half truthes and being young and dumb

Karate fills a special little niche of hate in the heart of many martial artists. I think it's a combination of easy target, confusion, ignorance and the none functioning. It's not that all karate fits these requirements, but there sure is a heck of a lot of it that does. To paraphrase Marc MacYoung, "Do you practice the 97% of karate that is useless or the 3% that can break you in half like a twig?" According to him, the only thing that karate people have in common is that they'll answer yes to this question. I guess we can take comfort in the solidarity of our mass delusion.

I really think the problem is marketing. Old and new marketing and personally I put most of the blame squarely on Gichin Funakoshi. I'll talk about him later, but I'm still wading through all the bullshit in Karate-do Kyohan.

Karate has been marketed for a very long time as a one-size fits all kind of deal. It's supposed to turn you into the pinnacle of courtesy, patience, virtue, blah, blah, blah, etc. All of this while turning you into an unstoppable killing machine. Basically people think you can get the technique by focusing on the spiritual or rather the jutsu from the Do. Do to me is The Way, capitalized because it's a proper noun not a suffix. This means Zen. While one can be a side effect of the other, this is an accident and not the intent. Let's look at art as an example. If one chooses to paint for the sole purpose of personal enjoyment than they may become a great artist. It's usually beneficial to enjoy the activity that you're trying to get better at, but if your paintings keep turning out like your 3rd grade nephew's fridge art it doesn't matter. It's just for fun. There is no need to pursue, technique, theory, science, trial and error, history or experimentation to get better. Now on the other hand if you want to become a great artist let's say through painting landscapes, it may develop spiritual and therapeutic aspects, but the main goal is to get better. You will practice, study, experiment, consume history, learn new techniques and practice some more.

The problem comes when one thinks they are practicing the techniques, when they are really practicing The Way. Practicing technique means preparation. The training is for things to come. Practicing The Way means being in the moment, fulfilling the practice and the goal at the same time. Turning the wrench to turn the wrench, not to secure the bolt. Painting to paint, rather than painting to become great. The Way does not require understanding, but technique does. Many zen exercises are just repeating a mundane task over and over and over and over again until you are able to detach and see the world for what it is because your filter is currently busy performing that mundane task.

So what's this have to do with marketing. Well if we look at the time period of the popularization of karate, basically the time periods just before WWII and afterwards there are several factors that need to be addressed to understand why a person might twist the facts a bit.

One is the youth, both the soldiers of Imperial Japan and the orphans of the aftermath of the war. If you're trying to channel their aggression and their energy you want something that is highly physical, might calm them down a bit and something that won't seriously injure them. Young men get into trouble, mostly because they're stupid. Trust me I used to be one. The last thing you want is for a young soldier to get pissed and break another young soldier because they got mad, or give an orphan a dangerous instrument that he'll unleash on the unsuspecting public. So you take some martial arts, strip out all the dangerous stuff and put the emphasis on courtesy, virtue, humility, self esteem and all this good stuff that's good for society, but you don't tell them this is what you're doing. You don't get students especially the young rowdy ones you want to control by calling it a spiritual exercise you say it's the most bad ass, unstoppable, killing system ever devised by man and because they want respect, status and strength, they're not even going to question you about whether what they're doing is real or not because they don't care. They think they're going to become unstoppable killing machines. You'll even have all these wonderful stories about great martial artists who used their skills to seriously mess people up.

It's great marketing, a great business model and it keeps people coming back. It's why it's still here. It's why traditional karate doesn't line up with the stories. It's why Funakoshi himself in his autobiography says that karate is not the same as how he was taught it in his youth.

Luckily there are people now scratching their heads and thinking "Wait a minute. How could karate have survived the hundreds of years of secrecy before it's popularity if it's the same as what we do now, because what we do now doesn't work and people that have to stake their lives on their skills generally don't survive long if their moves don't work."

Now the caveat is that if you're practicing it for the Do, for personal enjoyment or spiritual reasons than you can do it any damn way you please, because it doesn't matter and you shouldn't stop.