Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What is karate?

It's a surprisingly hard question. It should be rather easy to answer. I guess the simplest and most realistic would be that it's a martial art that was developed in Okinawa. It's not even fair to call it Okinawa, Japan, because the development of karate was taking place long before the island chain was ever fully adopted into the Japanese empire.

There are plenty of people that are willing to tell you what karate is, if you pay them. They even claim that they'll be able to tell you how to do it.

Karate becomes rather abstract rather quickly once people start talking about it. There are so many ways to define what it is and what it isn't, and each explanation is nearly as valid as all the others because the creators are rather silent on the subject. If everything is valid, invalid, wrong or right than what karate is and isn't is of no real consequence.

I'm not exactly sure karate was ever supposed to not be abstract. Even the name karate is rather abstract. It seems simple. Stupid simple, but it gets rather complicated when you realize that the name is political, sneaky and not as clear as we might think. Kara means empty, te means hand. What's complicated about that. Well it get's complicated when you have books titled Ryukyu Kempo Karate Jutsu. Kempo means fist method, so empty handed fighting, so the title translated means as we understand the terms today as the Okinawan empty handed fighting method empty hand techniques. It makes more sense if we use kara in the original context meaning the Tang dynasty of China and Te referring to the indigenous Okinawan martial art. Karate being the synthesis of the two. So than it reads the Okinawa fighting method of the Chinese/Okinawan techniques. It can also be translated as the Ryukyu fist method of emptiness and Okinawan techniques. In karate do kyhon Gichin Funakoshi explains that the empty part of karate has some philisophical merit to it.

Karate teachers of old, before WWII, never seemed to explain anything to their students and never allowed them to ask questions. I thought this was strange at first, but I think they might have been on to something.

I think this abstractness can be both good and bad. It's bad because people tend to make stuff up to fill the holes in their knowledge. They don't know what something is, so instead of asking or better yet trying to figure out what it is, they just guess and leave it at that. I think the whole point of it is to figure out what it is on your own, without teachers. The teachers show you the proper mechanics, but you figure out how to use it. Like walking or riding a bike. You can't explain to someone how to ride a bike. You can tell them the steps, but until someone balances themselves and push the pedals there's no amount of instruction, drills or practice that is going to get them riding a bike until they just try and ride a bike. The more I learn about karate the more I feel it is the same. You can explain a move, but understanding is dependent on each individual person. The teacher's job is to foster an environment in which that person can come to understanding on their own.

I guess if something comes from within, it is futile to look for the answer without.