Monday, February 22, 2010

Karate Tournaments

Traditional Karate Aerial Photography, sketch by Soke Hausel

Personally, I’m have a problem understanding the popularity of sport martial arts. this and the so-called mixed martial arts look more of a mixture of professional wrestling and Saturday night fights at the Cowboy bar. Then there is the so-called X-treme martial arts that appears to be a fashion show of sorts with good gymnastics. I’m normally positive about developments in martial arts. But just because a person kicks does not make it a martial art, and it most of these cases, they are not practicing martial arts.

I have been leery of anything that had to do with tournaments and was never impressed by outbursts from competitors who lacked self-control or did not like the judging and demanded they receive a point for punching at someone. Think of that – a point for punching at air. Guess it’s better than hitting someone. But at least they could strike the air with some focus.

The few tournaments I took part in were nothing like these and even then I felt they had nothing to do with traditional martial arts. We never saw any outbursts simply because it was obvious who defended themselves and who did not – it was called a welt, bruise or concussion.

Tournaments were never part of traditional karate. There are many who claim to be traditional martial artists but lack respect for others and lack of positive self-improvement and focus too much on competition. This is not traditional martial arts!

People who train for the so-called sport arenas often lack in power or focus. I’ve actually heard of contests where everyone receives a trophy no matter how they performed. This is not a good idea. One should only be rewarded for accomplishments - not participation.

Where do tournaments come from? History is apparently unaware of any karate tournaments prior to the introduction of karate to Japan in the 20th century. In fact, Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate, was disturbed by such a development on mainland Japan as were other Okinawan masters.
Training at Arizona School of
Traditional Karate in Mesa
Tonfa training at the Arizona School of Traditional
Okinawa Karate in Mesa

I was in one of the initial groups who started training in karate in the US (hard to believe I can be dated so easily), so I have been able to watch the evolution of US karate over the past 4+ decades. As I understand, karate was brought to the US by a few servicemen stationed in Okinawa and first formally introduced in 1956 on Hawaii before it became a state (don’t tell Obama, he still thinks there are 57 states).

I began training in karate in 1964 under a Hawaiian who studied under another Hawaiian in a system developed by Mas Oyama in Japan. Oyama was apparently one of Funakoshi’s students. We did not know what a tournament was when I started in karate and the only so-called tournaments I’m aware of at that time were shiai (local contests) between two dojo. These were different that the tournaments today in that they were brutal and had no winners. We would line up based on rank and sit down. Our groups consisted of 95% white belts, two or three color belts and two or three black belts.

Flying side kick at the University of New Mexico, 1975

The first two white belts sitting at the end of the line would stand up for the first match: one from our dojo verses one from the other dojo. We had no protective gear other than a cup, no head gear, and no gloves. Everything was done full-contact and any part of the body and head was fair game – luckily, no one had tremendous focus (although we could block almost anything) otherwise we would have buried some people.

When the first match finished, it was usually apparent who had won the contest. No one would call out points, instead it was decided by either one person still standing, or if both were still standing, the senior black belt would tell one of the white belts to sit down. No one ever argued and more often than not, you looked forward to being told to sit down. The one still standing would not have time to catch his breath as the next white belt in line from the other dojo would stand and the next kumite contest began.

This method of madness went through the entire white belt ranks until a color belt member was called to fight the last standing white belt. As soon as the last colored or white belt was standing, a black belt would be called to the next kumite match. I can tell you that these contests were not fun. They were brutal and punishing and there were no trophies other than the bruises we took back to our dojo to show those who did not make it to the contest. You did not see anyone argue with a senior black belt as to who got what point or who had won. In most cases, you were relieved to sit down and catch your breath and hoped you could walk from the tatami (mat).

So why attend such brutal contests – particularly if there were no trophies? We had our personal trophies – our bruises and the knowledge that we survived. Besides, we were there to learn how to defend ourselves.

I don’t remember anyone ever getting seriously injured as we see today. Maybe time has eliminated the memories of people tearing up their knees, etc, but I cannot remember one instance where this happened in the 1960s. I do remember the knockouts (except the ones where I was on the receiving end), the many bruises, the pain of being kicked in the groin (a cup didn’t seem to provide much of protection) and getting the wind knocked out. We never even thought of the possibility of killing someone. These contests were excellent for building reflexes, but poor for building focus, power and good technique – thus I would have to say that such early contests were not good for the evolution of karate and contests of today are worse because one does not even learn to block properly. 

Mixed martial arts have no lineage, they have no philosophy and no path to lead the practitioner to become a better person. As such, MMA cannot be considered a martial art. These is also no kata. One must assume that Shoshin Nagamine (1907-1997) a well-known Okinawan karate master knew what he was talking about. He practiced all his life and grew up on the Island of Karate. The Grandmaster of Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu karate wrote in Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters, "if there is no kata, there is no karate, just kicking & punching".

Self-defense training with Japanese tanto (knife).
It is also true of Xtreme martial arts. I am not saying that these people are not talented fighters or gymnasts, all I’m suggesting is that they should call themselves what they truly are – sport fighting and sport gymnastics as they have little to do with martial arts.


Our center is open to the public - we focus on Adults and Families. Come learn the traditions of Okinawan Karate & Kobudo, where much of the class is conducted in Japanese and English to help students learn Japanese. We also teach meditation, philosophy and martial arts history interjected in karate classes. Check out our schedule.

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