Styles, Systems and Purity

This will be a long post, so I apologize in advance, and let me preface this by saying that I do not think I am qualified to “create a style” or anything like that.  This is just a collection of thoughts and observations regarding styles and systems.

Anko Itosu, Shuri-Te Instructor

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about karate and its development over time, from the pre-Chinese-influence (the development of ti), to the post-Chinese-influence (the development of toudi) to the development over the last century (the development of modern karate).  In addition, Dobbersky’s excellent, thought-provoking topic about style purity on KarateForums got the gears turning in my head even more about what styles are, what a system is and how they relate to teaching martial arts.

I do not believe that systems and styles are the same–a system is simply a collection of techniques and concepts, while a style is a specialized, formalized way of practicing and applying a system.  Styles are an unusual topic since, in the past, they did not really exist as we know them today–the (primarily) striking art of Okinawa was just ti or te and if you wanted to be more specific you could say that it was ti/te from this city, or from the palace or from so-and-so’s family. In addition, everyone trained a little differently and placed different emphasis on some techniques or practices–everyone had their own personal system of training ti/te, and they tried to learn from different teachers in different places to add to or modify their system. Once a student showed enough proficiency to teach, they could then take on students and teach those students their system how they deemed best.

Over time, some people started gaining more exposure and more students, and this seems to have caused issues because many people were learning from the same few instructors, and they all took something slightly different from their training. This caused some people to try to “preserve” exactly what their teacher taught them, which carries on to this day, and I believe that this was the point when named styles with set curriculum started to become prevalent in karate.  This act of seeking to “preserve” an art meant that a system was given a specific curriculum and a name to differentiate it from other styles with different curriculum, and students all learned identical curriculum within a style.

Randy Couture, Former UFC Champion and Head Instructor of Xtreme Couture

Nowadays, if you reached a point where your style/organization/instructor feels that you are skilled enough to teach, you are supposed to continue teaching the curriculum of that style/organization/instructor (for the most part) to all of your future students. In fact, if you don’t do that, people from the style/organization or your instructor take offense and may even seek to discredit you, even though they saw you fit to teach before you started changing the curriculum.  The reason I find this interesting is because this does not happen in Western combative arts like wrestling, boxing or even in MMA–if you are successful then people want you to teach your personal system in those situations.

It seems to me that the stylization of karate has caused karateka to lose sight of its original purpose, and it injects politics where they do not need to be.  If a karateka trains extensively in an art, or multiple arts, and becomes very proficient at it, and is able to teach it well, why should they not be able to teach it the way they see fit?  After all, they have been practicing it on their own the way they see fit, and it has worked for them.  If a karate instructor were to decide that they wanted to remove all but the Naihanchi kata from their system, for example, they and their students would never have the support or recognition of anyone else because they could not be part of a style or organization anymore, because the curriculum has changed.  Does that change whether they are training effectively or not?  I don’t believe it does, but in current times we seem to be driven to seek reinforcement from others that we are doing “the right thing” when we could simply find out for ourselves if we are doing “the right thing”.

The problem of styles is made worse by everyone feeling the need to be part of a style or organization in order to be a legitimate martial artist.  This means that people who are skilled and are good teachers that break away from the curriculum of their style/organization so that they can teach their system as they see fit will often create a new name for what they teach.  I don’t believe that this is a good idea, because it simply makes people question your legitimacy further (“what makes them so good that they know better than the original founder of the system they studied?”) and it serves to inflate egos (“I founded this style so I am 10th-dan Soke Grandmaster of it”) and make it difficult for students to know where the art they are learning came from.  Instead, it seems to me that if an instructor teaches their system the way they see fit, they should simply tell people what systems they trained in, under whom, and for how long to develop their system.  No special style name should be necessary–just a history of dedicated training and evidence of effective training.

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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.