Styles, Systems and Perception 2

A very interesting discussion started on one of Theodore Kruczek’s posts on the OKI website regarding people’s perception of traditional martial arts and how to change it.  One of the things that I found interesting, and which ties into my previous post about people’s personal systems not needing to have names, was the idea of calling karate something else that would be more acceptable in our modern culture.  Below is an expanded version of what I wrote in the comments of Mr. Kruczek’s post.

Names carry reputations with them in people’s minds, even when things with the same name are completely different from each other–in this case, karate as taught by a McDojo, karate as taught traditionally and karate as taught by those returning to the practical roots of karate. We may value the traditions of our arts, but we can’t deny the fact that we do not live in Japan/Okinawa, and so our culture is vastly different and our arts may need to evolve to fit in, much like when toudi became karate when it was introduced to Japan.

Mr. Kruczek says that he tends to call what he teaches “combatives”, and that he uses traditional karate to teach his combative methods.  The word “combatives” is a generic term for techniques used to engage in combat, so it applies just as well as any other name that could be given to a martial system, and both “karate” and “toudi” were generic terms for martial arts to begin with so to call it “combatives” instead of “karate” would not be a far departure. If you called it “Empty Hand Combatives” I doubt most people would assume that it was anything other than a modern-military-based fighting system, but if you called it “Sentou-Waza Karate” (which means the exact same thing) you would be accused of forming your own karate style, traditional karate people might very well try to discredit you, and those outside the martial arts world would likely make the same assumptions about it as they do about a strip mall McDojo or traditional but impractically taught karate, just because you called it “karate” and gave it a fancy-sounding Japanese name.

With or without a gi, trapping an attacker’s arm and using a spear hand works the same.

 Just like with people’s personal systems of training karate, I don’t think the name should matter–whether you call it “combatives” or “karate” doesn’t change what it is.  One of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes addresses this very issue:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

It doesn’t take much work to change that phrase so that it applies to martial arts:

“What’s in a name? That which we call karate, by any other name, would teach us to fight as well.”

Regardless of what I think, however, most Western people believe that karate is for children because it has been marketed and watered down for that purpose by many instructors over the years.  This means that using the word “karate” is now misleading the public, and so it may just be time for us to call it something else that is more representative of what karate really is.  We can start calling it something in our native language that refers to martial arts in a general way, just like the Okinawans did, and suddenly we can make a new first impression.

Facebook Comments



About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.

2 thoughts on “Styles, Systems and Perception

  • SueC

    Hi Noah, I sort of agree with you and disagree with you at the same time! Though in principle it shouldn’t matter what you call something in reality it can change your perception of what that thing is. To me the word combative suggests a ‘street’ version of martial arts – a watered down version of purely practical techniques to be learnt quickly. As you know, karate is much more than this. It is about more than technique, it involves training in the mental aspects as well and strives towards self-improvement. If it had been called ’empty hand combatives’ I probably wouldn’t have signed up for it because it gives it a much more macho image. But that’s a girls point of view!

  • Noah

    Hi Sue,

    Thanks for the input! I do understand where you are coming from, because you are right in that what you call something is going to alter people’s perception of it. The thing is, that is kind of the point! Karate, over time, has been losing people’s respect (and becoming less popular because of it) because too many people have been focusing on the mental and self-improvement aspects of karate while neglecting the practical aspects. I believe that practical self defense should be the primary goal of karate, and the mental aspects should be side-effects of that training.

    I understand that these things are all a part of karate, and I find them to be valuable, but karate was originally intended to be a combative system of self defense, and that is fairly evident when you look at history. I don’t believe that teaching practical techniques from kata right away is detrimental to a karate student because I feel that karate should, first and foremost, make a student capable of defending themselves, but this is not the way it is typically done. To me, this is what karate should have been–a brutally effective system of self defense that ALSO teaches humility, self control and boosts self esteem over time. What most karate is, nowadays, is a system of teaching humility, self control and boosting self esteem while ALSO teaching what is essentially kickboxing (block/punch/kick karate and sport sparring) or dance (kata with no application) that might develop into an effective system of self defense over time. That, to me, is watered down karate because it neglects what should be the primary goal in order to promote what should be the side effects of training.

    Do I think that all karate dojo teach ineffectively? No, of course not! The problem I am highlighting is that most of the public views anything labelled as “karate” to be a children’s activity for boosting confidence, self esteem and self control while they do some kickboxing and dance at the same time so they get exercise. This is perfectly fine for young children, but it is the image given to karate as a whole–that is why our youth classes have 20 students and our adult classes have 4, even though we teach effective self defense techniques. The odd thing I believe you will find is that if you take away the gi and teach the same kata, broken down into bunkai drills, and you call your karate “empty hand combatives” or something else similarly basic and modern in your native language, more adults will take it seriously and the true usefulness of karate can be demonstrated, allowing effective karate to grow instead of being watered down for children.

    That’s just the way I see it, of course! I know you aren’t the only one who would likely be turned away by something called “empty hand combatives”, “hand-to-hand self defense”, etc. but I think that karate needs to get its reputation for effectiveness back, and I don’t think it will be an easy thing to do if we keep calling it karate, thanks to the way most people see it.

Comments are closed.