Should karate be one style? 空手は一流派にすべきか

Many people (at least the Japanese people) remember clearly that Judo (柔道) was inducted into the Olympics in 1964 at the first Tokyo Games. Then at the 1988 Seoul Games, Taekwondo was allowed as a demonstration event, and then became an official Olympic event at the 2000 Sydney Games. Many karate coaches and the practitioners were very happy when they heard the announcement last year by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) that Karate was one of the sports events added to the 2020 Tokyo Games.



This means that as far as the induction into the Olympics, Karate is 30 years behind Taekwondo and more than half a century behind Judo. I know that WKF (World Karate Federation) and JKF (Japan Karate Federation) had tried many times to get karate in the Olympics but were unsuccessful until now. You would wonder why.



Some people may know that the main reason why Karate had to wait until now was that it has many different styles. On the other hand, Judo and Taekwondo are “single” styles. Judo originated from Jujutsu. Though Jujutsu had many different styles, Jigoro Kano (嘉納治五郎, photo left) made a new style, Judo and separated it from the other Jujutsu (柔術) styles.  Though the Korean people want to hide or deny the historic fact, Taekwondo originated from Shotokan karate after World War II. Therefore, coming from a single source, it was easy to stay as one style.



For the Olympic supporters, this diversity of karate styles was a bad thing. It is mainly because the many styles have their own kata and different methods of execution of technique. Many readers know that we have four major styles in traditional karate; Shotokan (松濤館), Shito ryu (糸東流), Goju ryu (剛柔流), and Wado ryu (和道流). It was not surprising then, to see those four major traditional styles would be included in the 2020 Games. To resolve the problems of different kata between the styles, WKF picked a few kata from the list of kata of each style. This is called shitei (指定) kata meaning “appointed” kata. These kata are used during the eliminations before the competitors can do their own kata or jiyu (自由) kata.

The shitei kata are:



The first round; Kanku dai and Jion (Shotokan), Seishan and Chinto (Wado ryu). Seienchin and Bassai dai (Shito ryu), Saifa and Sepai (Goju ryu).


The second round; Kanku sho and Enpi (Shotokan), Niseishi and Kushanku (Wado ryu), Matsumura Rohai and Nipaipo (Shito ryu), Kururunfa and Seisan (Goju ryu).


First of all, I am not sure how these kata were chosen. As I do not know the kata from other styles (I know only Shotokan), I cannot compare the degree of difficulty between the kata. Therefore, I cannot say that the kata that were selected are fair for all of the participants.


In addition to those four major traditional styles, there are many other karate styles, though they may not be as popular or well known. Some of those styles include Shorin ryu (少林流), Uechi ryu (上地流), Ryuei ryu (劉衛流), Isshin ryu (一心流), and Chito ryu (千唐流). The practitioners from these styles can participate in the Olympic trials. However, to be able to compete in the kata elimination bouts, the other style participants need to know the WKF selected (Shitei) kata.



The problem was not only with the kata. When the possibility of karate being admitted to the Olympics, Kyokushinkai (極真会 Mas Oyama style), a full contact style, expressed their desire to be included in the kumite event. They (Kyokushinkai management) must have felt that they needed to be on the band wagon if they wish to be counted as one of the major karate styles. To prove that any Karate style can play under one umbrella of karate, JKF accepted them. Of course, Kyokushinkai had to promise that their competitors would abide by the non-contact rule in the Olympic matches. I was amazed when I heard this, as I am not sure how they will be able to do this. I am not even sure if that is even possible. Regardless, they promised to do this so that they can participate in the Olympics.


By observing these changes, we can clearly see one thing. WKF/JKF eliminated, at least minimized, the differences between the styles so that they can satisfy the requirements by the IOC. In other words, all the different styles can look like one style that is called “Karate”. If you are already involved in the WKF (World Karate Federation) tournaments, you may feel it is natural and this is already happening around the world. Many people will probably consider this is a “good thing” for Karate.


I agree that dropping the barrier between styles is a good thing for Karate. Learning the kata of another style may be also beneficial. On the other hand, I am one of the (most likely few) karate practitioners/instructors who oppose Karate being in the Olympics. I oppose from several different aspects.


  1. The first objection is its obese commercialism. I am sure I do not need to explain much on this subject. I have already written an essay about the bad effect of commercialism from the Olympics to Karate, so this is not necessary in this essay.
  2. The second reason for my opposition is degradation of the tradition, such as karate etiquette, budo (武道) manners, etc. In the Olympic karate, winning becomes the ultimate goal. I am afraid some competitors will cheat or bend the rules in order to win. I have written an essay on this subject as well, thus I will not repeat the discussion in this essay.
  3. And finally I wish to bring up the biggest reason for my opposition, which is the main subject of this essay. I am seriously concerned the involvement of karate in the Olympics will result in the degradation of the Karate skill itself. You may consider this claim to be an exaggeration but let me explain.


I am going to discuss how this change (the Olympics) will bring a serious detrimental effect on Karate. In fact, it is already happening, to some extent, at tournaments held by WKF, but the excitement and the commercial power of the Olympics will certainly increase this trend.

Here are my feared effects on both kumite and kata. Let’s start with kumite.




As I have mentioned earlier a full contact style (Kyokushinkai practitioners) are now allowed to participate in the kumite event. This is the biggest change in the fighting style example, but there are other cases. If you have practiced Goju ryu (photo right) or Uechi ryu, you are aware that their fighting styles are based on a close distance fighting theory. In other words, their main fighting strategy is when the opponents are within the arms’ reach or less than a meter away.



So, what’s wrong with this? First, let’s take the Kyokushinkai situation. The practitioners of that style, in their normal training, they hit and kick their opponents in full swing with the intention of knocking them down. They do not train to stop their attacks before the impact. They also do not train just to touch the opponent to get a point. If they make “excessive” contact as ruled by the WKF judges those competitors will lose through a foul. Therefore, they have to change not only their training routine but also the fundamental training method.



This is the same situation for the competitors from Goju ryu and Uechi ryu. Even though they do not train to hit the opponents in full power, their fighting method is also based on a close distance fighting. This is why they assume neko ashi dachi and sanchin dachi in their training. Goju ryu often use knee kicks and short mae ashi (front leg) kicks. Uechi ryu’s kamae is with open hand and the use of boshi ken (拇指拳) or thumb fist (photo left). They strike with the knuckle of the thumbs. They also use a lot of nukite, finger thrust. So these signature techniques have to be dropped for the WKF kumite tournaments.


In fact, when you watch these kumite matches you cannot differentiate the styles among the competitors. Surprisingly, the fighting style change did not happen only to the Goju ryu and Uechi ryu. Believe it or not, it happened to the Shotokan practitioners as well. In the 60’s and the 70’s when I was active in tournament kumite, we would never hop or jump as we fought. The change came to Shotokan when JKA joined JKF (WUKO at that time) in the 80’s. Kumite by the Shotokan practitioners changed from the strong Ippon attack to light and quick touching style. In order to win by the rules this was necessary.


So, what is wrong with this? You may say that those young competitors will retire at the age of 30 or so, then they can return to their original style and continue their own training so that the uniqueness of the style can be preserved. Or you may say that the competitors are only the young people so the old sensei can continue their own training to keep their style. This is theoretically correct, however, real life is different.



Here is a typical Shotokan dojo. I figure a typical dojo of Shito ryu, Wado ryu or Goju ryu is probably very similar. I bring up a Shotokan dojo as an example only because I am most familiar with this style. A typical dojo must have many child and youth members to survive (financially). Most of the large scale dojo with the membership of 50 or more must consist of 50% or more of youth members (younger than 18 years old). The parents of those young members want their children to be trained so that their sons and daughters have a chance to compete in the Olympics. Does this sound familiar?


In addition, I have been witnessing that many dojo advertise that they support Karate being in the Olympics, because that will attract the young people and potentially increase the membership of that dojo. Despite the fact only a few talented competitors will be chosen for the Olympics and the possibility of the participation is almost zero for most young practitioners, but it does not matter. Parents still want to see their children try for it. In many cases the parents have a stronger desire for this than the youth themselves.


This means two things. First, the daily training menu will be designed to match with the tournament karate. All the young practitioners will not be exposed to the unique fighting method of their karate style. Second, the senior practitioners who retired from competitions have to stay with the same menu and they need to help their kohai (後輩) for competition. Of course, the instructors will be too occupied with teaching youths so they will have almost no chance to train their retired students in the traditional way that they had learned when they were young.


So, it will be impossible for that dojo to either train the new students in the original or traditional way and to preserve that kind of training with the senior students. As the result, all the practitioners, young and senior in that dojo will continue to train only the tournament type of kumite. In other words, the unique short distance fighting method will soon disappear as it will be considered as “useless” or “infeasible” for Olympic kumite.



The situation is very similar here, but it is made even worse with kata problem. It is worse because it affects all of the styles. In kumite situation, the ill effect of tournament kumite may be less for the long distance fighting method styles such as Shotokan and Wado ryu. The serious ill effect will be felt among the short distance fighting method styles such as Goju ryu and Uechi ryu.


I am sure you can easily guess what specifically I am concerned about with kata training. Correct….most of the competitors will practice only the Shitei kata and maybe their favorite kata. For the Shotokan practitioners, they must be extremely good with Kanku dai and Jion first, then Kanku sho and Enpi. The foundation or essential kata for Shotokan include Bassai dai and Tekki. In addition, Hangetsu and Jitte are very important. Of course, the other kata are also important but I doubt the competitors will practice them. In fact, Hangetsu, Meikyo and Jiin are almost being forgotten in the daily training of many Shotokan dojo.



Even though those four Shitei kata are not complete they represent the core concept of Shotokan kata. How about if you are a competitor from Uechi ryu? The main kata are Sanchin, Kanshiwa, Kanshu, Seichin, Seisan, Seirui, Kanchin and Sanseirui.  Seisan is the only kata found in the Shitei kata list. This kata is taken from Goju ryu so even if the kata names are the same I am not sure if the kata are performed the same. I suspect they will be different in the details even if they happen to be similar. Many Okinawan styles have kobudo (古武道) or weapon kata for bo, sai, tonfa and nunchaku. Definitely those kata and their training will be either forgotten or ignored in the dojo that focus on the Olympics entry.


I believe each kata is a module or a treasure box that contains the essence of karate techniques stored by the ancient masters. I honestly equate the loss of the kata as the disappearance of that style. It is my belief that the kata of a style are the soul of that style.




Sports karate is becoming more and more popular each year. The induction of karate into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will certainly strengthen this trend. Its attraction is almost irresistible. Literally millions of young people will practice sports karate hoping that they will be selected to be one of the Olympic competitors.

The preparation not only for the Olympics but also for any of the major tournaments will mean a whole dojo effort. Even though it is possible to divide the dojo members between the tournament competitors and the traditionalists so that they would have separate training menus, I doubt it would happen in most of the dojo. I also doubt the retired sport competitors to drop their training menu and start the traditional way from scratch. They most likely will become the coaches and sensei to teach the sports karate to the young people.



The tournament rules will change the kumite styles and the fighting methodology. Those rules will force the competitors from all different styles to fight in one way. The close distance fighting will be lost among the Goju ryu, Uechi ryu and other Nahate styles if they join this trend.


In addition, we already know that many of the effective techniques in a real fight such as groin kick, eye jabbing, finger techniques, chokes, joint techniques, etc. have already been excluded. These techniques are already no longer a part of the regular training menu.


WKF chose a few kata from the major four styles. In order to compete in an elimination bout, a competitor must practice those kata. There are many other kata that are considered important in these styles. However, they will become less attractive and some will be completely ignored in regular training. If you believe as I do that the essence of the style we train are contained in those kata, losing any of the kata means the degradation of the style.


Let me give you an analogy that may be easier to understand. There are many different kinds of ball games around the world. In England and Australia a ball game means rugby. In most of the Latin American countries, it is soccer. In the USA, of course it is American football. There are many other ball games such as baseball, basketball, volleyball to name a few. Can you imagine if you try to combine them all to make one “ball game”? Even if it is possible to come up with such a game, there will be no more excitement in that game of a rugby or soccer.


Therefore, my conclusion in this subject is very simple and straight forward. Though the majority of the karate practitioners may consider sports karate is a good thing, I oppose the trend with all my heart. I do because I fear the soul of karate will be lost if the different karate styles disappear and becomes one style under WKF.


At the end let me share a quote by a Zen Buddhist, Taisen Deshimaru (弟子丸 泰仙 1914 – 1982). In 1967, Deshimaru went to Europe and settled in Paris. He founded the Association Zen Internationale in 1970, and La Gendronnière in 1979. He was much respected and published many books. By the time he died he had solidly established Zen practice in the West. He commented on budo (martial arts) and shiai (competition).

“Train the body and develop stamina and endurance. But the spirit of competition and power that presides over them is not good, it reflects a distorted vision of life. The root of the martial arts is not there.”

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