Are You The Karate Police?

A lot of what is written about karate is about how it is done wrong, how it is flawed or broken, or how it is missing or has lost something. Usually the writer is comparing “most” karate to his or her karate, with the missing elements of course being in the writer’s practice. Sport vs. Budo. Japanese vs. Okinawan. Traditional vs. Modern (though by definition everyone training today is training modern karate, unless they have a time machine, so I am not so sure about that one). But why is it so important to tell the karate world what they are doing wrong? It seems futile, I must say, as it is highly unlikely everyone else is going to change their practice and emulate any given author’s. But there are so many people writing comments on YouTube about how technique x is unrealistic or done improperly and writing books about how karate needs x. Let’s not even talk about blog posts! The karate police are everywhere!

That is not how you apply the first moves of Sesan!

But since it is futile, why? There are three answers, in my opinion. The first is the most common: ego. The author knows his style/practice/answers are the right ones. For everyone. Everywhere. At every stage of their practice, and their lives. And then follows the insecurity: if there are other answers they must be corrected! (Otherwise mine might be wrong! NO!) So they launch a crusade to “fix” the karate world, to save karate from the way it is getting degraded by, well by whatever it is they don’t like. (Of course marketing and money might also play in here, but let’s leave that alone right now.)

The second, and far less common, is a desire to help. Author x sees a problem and says “hey, maybe people don’t know about this problem, I better tell them”. Good intentions. But you know what they say about good intentions, and where that road leads, right? Because intentions notwithstanding, it is still futile, wasted effort. And that leads to the third, martyrdom. Being the “hero” standing alone, seeing the devastation of an ancient art and being a lone voice fighting back, trying to save it. Appealing for some, I guess. But a self-fulfilling prophesy really, as amongst the millions of people practicing their versions of karate, no one voice is ever going to shine through as a guide or savior to them all.

The lion stands for everyone doing karate wrong. Get it?

And that is, in my opinion, how it should be. As Mario McKenna sensei notes here, karate is not broken. Sure it is fragmented, but that has always been the case. There are accounts of karate used as entertainment as early as any other accounts of the art. (I’ll go back to McKenna sensei’s blog for one from 1930 here.) And when Funakoshi wrote his autobiography he was already railing about how the art was being debased, well before real international popularity. These problems seem to be part and parcel of the art as far back as we can see. Therefore, I would hazard that the problem is not with karate, which seems to be able to encompass quite a variety of practices and is still going strong, but with people wanting to tell other people what to do. But with the huge numbers of people practicing their versions of karate, and with none of them having any reason to listen, any attempt to police them really does seem a bit, well, not to over-use a word, but, futile.

Of course I have my own opinions about what my karate is, and what the roots of the art represent. But I am not fooling myself. I have no monopoly on ideas about what karate is, and there is no reason anyone should listen to me, unless they choose to. Honestly, the same goes for everyone, including the top researchers, teachers, and practitioners of the art. Karate is not broken, it is just not one single thing. It is no one’s job, or right actually, to be the karate police, to decide what is right and wrong.

Well, actually, that is not true. It is one person’s job. Yours. What is right for your practice? Are you honest in it? Do you understand its limitations and strengths? Are you open minded about it? Do you push yourself? Use your energy learning and policing yourself. That energy is well-spent there. Essential really. But trying to police the rest of the world? Knock yourself out. Literally.

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