The Tradition Must Live On
I managed to sneak into the back row and watched as the instructor led the class.
“I used this technique to defend myself against three attackers once. And it’s the technique I used to win the state championship. “ The kids stood there pretending to listen. Some looked at the ground, while others played with their gi.
“The back leg should be at xx angle. This is important to ensure power. Your back foot should be at xx angle. Your head should be straight forward, and your punching hand should be at xxx height. “ The kids fidgeted more. “This is my favorite technique, and I used it once in a multiple attack on the street. It’s a very important attack, and so you should learn it well. Let me demonstrate it for you.” It was clear that the instructor’s knowledge of basic technique was sufficient to teach this class. Still I felt that there was something strange about the way he was teaching it. I sat for twenty minutes and watched and listened to him explain most of the basic blocks to the students. He did a good job. There was a lot of detail in his explanation.
Still I left that training session with an uneasy feeling. Was the instructor teaching non-traditional karate? No, the techniques were traditional. I recognized them right away. There were some things that he said that I did not agree, but for the most part, I admit that they were traditional. Were the formalities of the dojo non-traditional? No, the instructor was definitely the center of the class. The kids bowed. The gis were white. I could not put my finger on what bothered me most. Did the students perform the techniques in a way that opposed convention? That’s exactly it. The students were not performing much of anything. They were being forced to interpret the instructor’s verbal instructions, and of course that requires a fairly good attention span, but they were also being moved to associate karate as a verbal form
This brings me to my own understanding of the importance of traditional karate and its role in modern society. While many authors have written about techniques—it is in fact normally the primary discussion amongst instructors---not many authors have focused on karate and learning. It is arguable whether one bunkai is applicable on the street or in the modern day than another. One could argue such technical aspects for days. I recall a discussion where two very high ranking karateka argued over the timing of the first move in Gojushihosho, wanting to get to the “authentic” JKA core, whatever that means. These technical issues have become greatly magnified, and I suspect for good reason. Traditional karate is changing, but at the core, this change is not necessarily because of technical degradation. I argue that what is changing is the way karate is taught. We are moving to an age where the “karate intellectual” holds much more clout than the karateka practitioner, the mover or the doer.
There are different types of learning styles: visual, auditory (verbal), reading and kinesthetic. It is this last style of learning that is dying with the art. What is special about Japan technique? I argue absolutely nothing! There are many qualified Western instructors, and from what I have seen, we are very strong in karate, and some of our collective technique rivals the highest-ranking Japan instructors. What does Japan still have that perhaps the West is starting to lose? I think that is answerable. They teach karate movements. Kinesthetic learning and teaching are dying in traditional Western karate. I recall my first days of karate as a child. I really do not remember what was said to me. I just remember copying the students around me. We were tightly packed, and so any variation in movement was easy to pick up. We punched the whole practice. We were corrected, but we kept moving. The Sensei did not stop to monologue, and if he/she did, it was very short and brief. Juxtapose that to today’s karate dojo. The ratio of talking to movement is moving largely in favor to the intellectual lecture. If you think about the last seminar you attended, how much practice did you get from that seminar?
Kinesthetic learning in short is the idea of learning through movement or doing. Not all students are natural kinesthetic learners, and that is fine. It is, however, important that karate develops this learning style in students. Their bodies and their movements become their knowledge and not their mouths. Modern schools are slowly pushing them away from this type of learning. Most of you can likely remember in your own secondary education courses such as automotive tech, woodshop, etc.. These courses were specifically designed to either provide an outlet for kinesthetic learners, or they were also designed to develop kinesthetic learning in students. These types of courses have largely been removed from many educational systems. The martial arts may very well be one arena that still embraces this type of learning style.
A successful instructor, particularly one who owns and operates a professional karate dojo, will adapt to different types of learners in the class to keep attendance high. Naturally many of the students will likely be visual and auditory learners, as these are the predominant learning styles pushed in compulsory education. Some of the students enjoy the long explanations because it is like school. However, at the core of tradition of nearly all forms of budo, the movement is more important than the auditory and verbal knowledge, and it is within this type of knowledge that you begin to see this rift in tradition. It is becoming more popular to express what you know verbally and discursively (through writing) than through movement and doing. This intellectual aspect of karate is changing karate dramatically. There is a tradition to codify techniques for fear that they may be lost, so the martial arts do have some link to a discursive type of learning. However I would argue that, at the core, budo is manifested through movement (or non-movement perhaps).
I am very proud that many Westerner’s skill and knowledge rival Japan instructors, but I am also afraid of how the move from kinesthetic learning and teaching to auditory learning and teaching is affecting the definition of knowledge itself. As students come through the traditional ranks with more proficiency in verbal knowledge and auditory knowledge of karate, they gravitate toward masters or seminar specialists that possess high proficiency in these other areas of learning. And you find that a lot of the old school high-ranking instructors, BOTH WESTERN AND ASIAN, are often not the most entertaining or engaging on a verbal level. They make their audiences move constantly, and the only instruction one does receive is a repeat of what one has already heard before. Popular seminar instructors are normally the ones with the verbal acuity or prowess to provide a different or entertaining explanation for the same phenomenon. I admit that I myself enjoy very detailed breakdowns of techniques and strategies. But as an instructor, I digress. The movement and practice are more important, and I have to remind myself that constantly.
My hope is that when my students reach yudansha stage, and I ask them a question where their hand should be in a movement, I want them to NOT access their stored verbal memory (what did he tell me long ago?). I much prefer that they repeat the movement in front of me and then tell me, and to access a previous movement in which they have applied technique such that they can say, “It goes here.”