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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Shaun Banfield


Shaun Banfield practicing KataToday we are living within the most current and modern phase of Shotokan’s history. We are presently studying and living in the moments that past Masters and instructors had predicted or discussed. They had talked of the future, and we are currently living within that future. In years to come, we will all look back at what was ‘the future’, and see it as the past. It’s the natural way, the progression of time.

The substance of this article is something I have been pondering for a long time. I vividly remember sitting outside my own dojo thinking about this very subject at length, so whilst I write this article now, it’s a product of a long period of contemplation. The subject matter concerns that of ‘Tradition’.

The term Tradition is one that gets branded around endlessly. It has almost lost its meaning due to over and misuse. I occasionally use the term ‘tradition’ in the context of comparison to sport karate, but it’s for want of a better term. To some extent, it has become a term to encapsulate all that is the opposite of sport karate. For this reason, I think its use is so common.

Many people consider their karate as traditional, casting judgemental silent sniggers across the room at those who bastardize the tradition, practicing bastardized non-traditional karate.  The more I think about it however, the more perspective I gain, the clearer I see the issue. I really do believe that traditional – in technical terms – cannot be an effective and objective term to brand karate.

A comparative analysis of ‘sport’ and so-called ‘traditional karate’ is not too difficult. In the main, the differences are so apparent that a comparison is totally unneeded.  Perusing YouTube alone bombards you with futile comparisons, pitting WKF kata against the kata from those who do not participate within WKF competition. This article therefore does not enter into such debates or comparisons, as for this article it is unneeded. Instead, my focus is based within the traditional groups solely.

I was recently speaking to someone who said that he decided, after a period of time away with another group, to go back to the JKA as he wanted to practice ‘Traditional Karate’. His implication that the JKA was the only group to practice ‘Traditional Karate’ was what initially made me think long and hard about what constitutes ‘Traditional’.

The term ‘Tradition’ is defined as ‘the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another’. The significance of tradition I would guess in all facets of society is vital, and its role is layered.

So by this definition how many of us are truly practicing ‘Traditional Karate’?

Within the boundaries of this definition, and within our interpretation of it, is it therefore untraditional to evolve and further refine the ‘customs’ or ‘information’ we have been given? Surely this is not what any of the ‘Masters’ of the past did?

If we look back at the literature and moving images we are in possession of we will see that Nakayama Sensei’s karate looked very different to Funakoshi Sensei’s karate. It is very predictable also that Funakoshi Sensei’s karate over time looked very different from his teachers’ karate. So would that imply that these two men were not in actual fact practicing ‘traditional karate’  as their practice was actually quite different from that which was handed down to them?

If we look at a simple sequence in Bassai Dai to give an example:

  • After the Fumukiri with the kiai, we turn and block shuto-uke
  • Step forward with the second shuto-uke
  • Pull front (R) leg back to heisoku-dachi , bringing both arms upward along the central line (jodan morote-uke)

Contention comes with the next technique, where from the jodan morote-uke, the arms break apart and the knee raises. Or does it?

Well study Best Karate, and Hiroshi Shirai (then JKA) does not raise the knee, neither does Masao Kagawa (then JKA) within the famous blue videos. Norio Kawasaki (KWF), from today’s more recent generation also does not demonstrate a detectable knee raise in available footage of him demonstrating the kata.

Interestingly however, Tsutomu Ohshima in Karate-Do Kyohan, Hirokazu Kanazawa in his kata video and Keinosuke Enoeda in old JKA footage do in fact raise the knee here.

But do they all not come from the same karate bloodline? Were they not all from the ‘Tradition’ of Funakoshi? So from this impressive list of senior karateka, who should we label Traditional?  Was Tetsuhiko Asai being untraditional when he developed kata outide of the Shotokan syllabus, when everything he practiced was with the warrior mentality?

People often ask me, ‘So Shaun, what is the most traditional way of doing this (or that)?’My response is always the same...how far back do you want to go?

Karate is in a constant state of evolution. It’s the natural way, as we all want to become better and refine the machine, its parts and our understanding of it. In my thinking, I want to practice karate that is explosive and effective, but that is also healthy for the body. We all know that many of the practices of old were quite unhealthy for the body, but within the limited perspective of what we interpret to be tradition, shouldn’t we still be practice them?

Of course such suggestions defy logic. We all want to avoid health problems as a consequence of training. We want to practice karate, to a huge extent, to improve and put two fingers up to lurking ill health. Therefore, we look to modern science and its understanding of the body to refine our practices to ensure we keep the machine in tip top condition. Therefore, to some degree I think we’re slightly getting caught up on the wrong things as it could be interpreted as untraditional to ditch unhealthy practices of old?

The spirit of karate lies in its dedication, perseverance, the drive to achieve ippon, and the perfection of character. If you are invested in these aspects, then more often than not you are partaking in ‘Traditional’ karate-do for want of a better term. It’s the attitude, and mentality that sets your position, not whether you do this or that technically? Just because one family wraps Christmas presents differently to another, does that mean that one family is not really celebrating Christmas?

So coming back to an earlier point I made. Nakayama Sensei’s karate did not look exactly like Funakoshi Sensei’s karate, and so on and so on, so does this suggest that Nakayama Sensei was not practicing traditional karate?

Me Practicing

Karate has to adapt, both on a person-by-person level, but also as a system of fighting. If we look at Yahara Sensei’s karate as an ideal example:

Watch footage of him training or teaching and what you will see is JKA Style karate with his own personal slant. The fundamental principles of JKA Style karate remain intact, but his research and study has taken his karate forward. He has further refined the role of the hips and developed it to be able unleash a lethal blow. This concept of ikken hisatsu is central to his karate and he is endeavouring to develop a truly deadly art. To achieve that which he feels is vital, he has developed and evolved his practice. Is that not what Funakoshi once did, or what Nakayama also did in his own way. These developments are necessary in order to move forward, keeping in mind for example that there was no ‘KIME’ as such (in terms of locking the entire body upon impact) before Nakayama Sensei – an example of his evolution.

My personal belief on Tradition is that in karate, it’s a very muddy term. It doesn’t have an easily  defined outline within which we are able to slot one person’s technical approach as opposed to another. For me, if I am practicing something that does not work, if it’s simply a ‘shape’ such as a block without the accurate insides, then it has no meaning. Similarly, a Martial Art without the right intent or ‘insides’, has no meaning. It is here that I think we should be making the distinction.

At the end of this article, I have almost travelled full circle as I have failed to come up with a better set of rules or guidelines that we can apply to define what is traditional or untraditional. But to be honest, that wasn’t the purpose of the article at all. In fact, exactly the opposite was my intention. What is more important, I feel, is defining what has value and what does not have value.

Therefore, in my own karate I am not restricting my logic, mind or practices to anyone’s perception of tradition. I am merely asking myself, what does and does not have value in my karate, and within those guidelines, I will able to develop.

Shaun Banfield