A New Start for Karate?

The following is a piece I wrote for the nascent American Amateur Karate Federation electronic newsletter. I’m hoping that interested readers will look out for the newsletter when it appears in the next few days.

On March 27th this year a meeting of historic importance for the martial arts took place at the University of Texas-Dallas, hosted by the Japan Karate Association and the AAKF Southwestern Region. I attended the seminar, and as a long-time student with more enthusiasm and years than talent and time I was curious to see how the Shotokan school would handle the great transition that the seminar marked.

A little over a year ago Hidetaka Nishiyama, the great sensei of the Shotokan school of karate, passed away after a lifetime of astonishing achievement in developing and spreading the ancient art of karate. He left behind a galaxy of martial arts talent and a great store of knowledge and expertise embodied in his students as well as in his published work.

I knew that traditionally martial arts schools have often broken up into rival fiefdoms after the era of a great integrating leader like sensei Nishiyama. I believe that what happened on the Richardson campus of the University of Texas and in meetings before and after the main occasion that weekend in March changed all that.

Significantly, the meeting was organized around an extraordinary teaching event. Robert Fusaro, Mahmoud Tabassi, Toru Shimoji, Albert Cheah, Dr. Tim Hanlon, Brad Webb and Alex Tong, the sensei of the Dallas club, presented, one after another, the distilled wisdom of perhaps two centuries of training, competition, and meditation. These were the true secrets of the art, presented in action and in training exercises, with remarkable clarity and new insight, by some of the finest athlete-artists in the world.

Other karateka reading this will be well aware of the changes that have been taking place in Shotokan: the adjustment of the stance to give more dynamical potential, the increasingly explicit study of internal body power and contraction, the analysis of the roles of different muscle groups, the work on breathing, timing, application. To the traditional spiritual, poetic, and alchemical vocabulary of China and Japan has been added the physics, dynamics, and sports-medical biology of the West, to the advantage of both. I foresee a further role for psychology, emerging from the combination of chi theory with Western neuropsychology. Many of these developing features of our art were splendidly on show at the seminar.

But what made the event unique was that each sensei built upon the work and ideas of the others. In a normal karate seminar each of these instructors would give profound knowledge and inspiration; but when the same basic yet subtle principles were illuminated in very different styles, metaphors, and physical action, suddenly karate seemed to spring from two into three dimensions, from the flat to the round. I learned approaches and methods that not only promised to improve my techniques, but also to avoid certain kinds of injury, and most important personally, to deepen my understanding of karate into the period of old age.

What was especially helpful was the creation of special sessions in which students both beginning and expert could ask questions individually of the instructors, and thus to get to know them and have them address the personal training needs of each questioner. This too was a change in the culture of karate, in the kindly spirit of sensei Nishiyama, but developed further in a way that extends extends the tradition in a new way.

What happened at the meeting, it seemed to some of us, was that the deep devotion of the leadership to teaching and to the art of karate itself had overwhelmed the traditional fiery independence and desire for precedence of the great masters. That spirit, though admirable and necessary in so competitive an art, has tended to prevent karate from speaking in a single voice. Perhaps the model of karate governance was changing from monarchy to a sort of democratic meritocracy, from rivalry in ranking to friendly and cooperative competition in excellence. Could we some day try once more for representation in the Olympics?

Whatever the further outcome of this meeting, the students were the beneficiaries, and we look forward to a new era of vitality in the fine old art of karate.

By Frederick Turner

Professor, poet, lecturer, black belt, and more.

One reply on “A New Start for Karate?”

I was the little fat kid in a Hap Ki Do class a long, long time ago, but my old knees are a creaking mess of bone-on-bone action these days. Joined a boxing club a few years back too, and found being knocked around the ring by teenagers half my size to be a humbling and enjoyable experience, good for the mind and spirit as well as the body. Long live the martial arts!

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