July 22, 2015

Defining Shotokan

What defines Shotokan training?  While a seemingly simple question, I think it can be hard to define, and I think the definition varies fairly widely among practitioners of the art.  I don’t know if there’s one “right” way to define what Shotokan training is, but I want to explain what elements are essential to me.  I would define Shotokan Karate-Do as a traditional martial art with ties back to Gichin Funakoshi.  In looking at each component of that, we can come to understand what I see as Shotokan.
  • Traditional – Our lineage traces back to Gichin Funakoshi, and we need to understand the history of our training.  We need to look not just at our immediate predecessor (our Sensei), but to how our training originated and why.  But upholding that tradition is not about purely preserving the techniques and training methods that have been passed down to us.  We keep those strong roots, but we need to continue to grow and adapt and change.  I would argue that one of the traditions that we are passing on is that of change – adapting to current circumstances, solving the same problems with modern training methods and new information.  As an example, traditional training involved hitting the makiwara, but we now have many other types of equipment that are more versatile to practice impact that should be utilized in training to test and strengthen our technique.  Studying and solving the problem of violence is part of the tradition.  To me, the only technical requirement for traditional training would be the inclusion of kata.  The kata have been passed down and contain the tactics and strategies that form the core of karate – the kata are the “textbooks of karate” that we have for our study.  Other training methods such as kihon in lines, jiyu kumite, etc. are more modern additions to training, and since their history isn’t as long, I don’t consider them necessary for traditional study.
  • Martial – Our movement’s effectiveness and efficiency is defined by combative principles.  The basis for our study is to learn about unarmed conflict and how to apply our techniques (primarily from kata) to solve those problems.  While practice of defending against another karate practitioner can be valuable for training, I think we need to be mindful that the art was not intended to solve that problem.  Our study should focus on using karate’s techniques to address civilian self-defense, and metrics for success are linked to combative effectiveness.  Applying this responsibly also includes learning about violence dynamics, what types of violence you’re likely to face, and the non-physical parts of self-defense (moral, ethical, legal implications) as well as aspects such as de-escalation, awareness, escape and evasion, etc.  These elements are a part of Shotokan Karate-Do if we are to conscientiously practice the art.
  • Art – The mental and philosophical aspects of training fall largely here, and it is important to study the philosophical principles handed down to us in the Dojo Kun, Niju Kun, and other martial philosophy (Art of War, Book of Five Rings, etc.).  The “art” part of training encompasses the practice of constant refinement, mindfully studying what we do and why, and trying to always improve and do things better.  For me as an instructor, that always also includes trying to find better ways to teach, and trying to help my students get better than me in less time than it took me to get there.  Particularly in the modern age, the ability to freely exchange information and learn and adopt from others is important for finding ways to constantly improve the study of our art.  To continue to improve our training, we should also learn about biomechanics, proper warm-up and stretching methods, understanding violence dynamics, methods of instruction of physical education, and the list goes on and on.  There are so many resources out there and experts in areas that impact our training that we can learn from to constantly improve.
The details and techniques and drills and methods of training do not make the tradition.  Things like the syllabus don’t define for me what Shotokan is.  I think we can look to the kata for techniques, but the inclusion or exclusion of any specific technique isn’t defining for me.  If someone did all of their training based on the 5 Heian kata and never learned mawashi geri – would it still be Shotokan?  I say yes.  Some would characterize Shotokan by the deep stances and athleticism, but is it a defining characteristic?  For aging practitioners, if they don’t have the deep stances anymore, are they no longer doing Shotokan?

For me, what is discussed here are the minimum requirements that I consider for someone to call what they’re doing Shotokan karate.  It’s our practice of a traditional martial art, and can be connected back to Gichin Funakoshi.  We preserve our shared history through the kata, study based on combative principles, and always seek to improve.  To me, that’s the essence of Shotokan.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan