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Traditional Karate-do and the Modern Olympic Movement

by Mark Cramer 

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of training with Mr. Kiyoshi Yamazaki who is the International Director of Japan Karate-Do Ryobu-Kai. He is also the chairman of the technical committees for both the USA National Karate-do Federation and the World Karate-do Federation.

I found Mr. Yamazaki to be a very traditional Japanese instructor in both his manner and his methodology. That afternoon, he addressed us with tremendous decorum as he taught us the kata Gojushiho-Sho. He taught the kata and the kata’s bunkai simultaneously stating that a kata can not truly be learned separately form its bunkai. He explained that kata is not just what appears on the outside. The inside of the kata, its bunkai, is an essential aspect of learning traditional Japanese karate-do.

He spoke with us about a number of issues and made an interesting observation. He stated that from the very moment that karate was introduced to the main islands of Japan, it has been inextricably intertwined with the Olympic movement. Mr. Yamazaki acknowledged that this assertion may amount to heresy for some. "Joining the Olympic family means that karate accepts Olympism as its guiding philosophy. Such thought might upset some ‘traditionalists.’ However, believe it or not, this had already occurred in the early 1900s."

I have since researched his writings on this subject as well as the writings of others, and I must conclude that Mr. Yamazaki presents a very well documented case. He makes three contentions which are verified by independent research. (1) The success of karate being accepted by the general population of Japan was, in large part, due to the ethos of Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo and the father of the Olympic movement in Japan. (2) Moreover, Mr. Funakoshi, who has long been regarded as the father of Japanese karate-do, followed Mr. Kano’s example and moved karate in the direction of an Olympic sport. (3) Mr. Yamazaki also believes that the spirit of budo and the spirit of Olympism share similar values.

Dr. Kano, the Olympic Movement, and Karate-Do
According to Mr. Yamazaki, Dr. Jigoro Kano was "...a life-long educator and university president...[and] the first Japanese representative to the IOC in 1909. [He] also participated in the 5th Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1912 as the head of the first-ever Japanese delegation. This was 10 years prior to the famous demonstration of karate by Gichin Funakoshi and Shinkin Gima that took place at Dr. Kano's Kodokan Dojo in 1922." (Dragon Times)

The world knows Jigoro Kano as the individual who in 1884 created the sport of Judo. We are told by Mr. Yamazaki that "Judo, which he [Dr. Kano] created, was without doubt a combination of the traditional Japanese martial art of jujitsu and the ideal of Olympism." It seems quite clear that, jujitsu, a Japanese art of war, was intentionally transformed in the direction of an international Olympic sport.

In regard to karate, Patrick McCarthy, in his introduction to The Bubishi, (p.55) tells us that before Okinawan karate could be accepted in mainstream Japanese society, it had to undergo transformations similar to the transformations that Dr. Kano had made in jujitsu when he created the sport of Judo. "For karate-jitsu to be accepted in mainland Japan, the Budokukai called for the development and implementation of a unified teaching curriculum, ...the implementation of Kano Jigoro’s dan-kyu system, and the development of a safe competitive format through which participants could test their skills and spirits...[The] idea was to establish a universal set of standards, as judo and kendo had done" From the earliest beginnings of Japanese karate-do, the concepts of standardization and a safe competitive format, or sport, were included.

This transformation of Okinawan karate-jitsu to Japanese karate-do was certainly not a superficial change. Substantive alterations were made in order for Japanese society to accept karate as a Japanese art. Mr. Yamazaki elaborates on this and explains that for karate-jitsu to become karate-do, it had to undergo a transformation from an warring instrument to a sporting format. "When Dr. Kano invited [Mr.] Funakoshi from Okinawa and encouraged him to teach karate in Tokyo, Dr. Kano envisioned a universal sport that could be practiced by the youth of the world. The transformation of karate-jitsu to karate-do signified karate’s acceptance as a sport rather than as a tool of war."

Mr. Gichin Funakoshi and Sport Karate-Do
In his book Shotokan Karate – A Precise History (p.71), researcher, Harry Cook, explains the extent to which Mr. Funakoshi’s karate was influenced by Dr. Kano’s beliefs. "It is obvious that Funakoshi was very influenced in his views by Jigoro Kano. Many of his pupils remember how he would stop and bow to the Kodokan [the headquarters of Dr. Kano's Judo organization] whenever he passed by. When asked why he did such a thing he always said that he was showing respect for Kano Sensei and for the help he had given him."

Mr. Yamazaki explains the extent to which Mr. Funakoshi’s karate was influenced by Olympic ideals. "Funakoshi’s dojo kun (motto) includes ‘Seek perfection of character!’ This philosophy actually originated in ancient Greece and was handed down to him by Dr. Kano, a life long mentor to Funakoshi and a friend of Baron Pierre de Coubertin [the founder of the modern Olympic movement]."

Harry Cook offers an interesting perspective on Mr. Funikoshi’s intention to create a sport within karate-do. He tells us that Fasajiro Takagi began training with Mr. Funakoshi in 1932, only ten years after karate’s introduction to Japan. "He says that Funakoshi ‘always advocated karate as a national physical culture. His concept was that karate should not remain merely a martial art, to beat and kill people, but more so, to ‘develop’ its potential as a sport.’" (Shotokan p. 91) Here, Mr. Takagi offers an interesting analysis. We are told that Mr. Funakoshi intended karate-do to remain, in some way, a martial art; but he also intended it develop into a sport.

The research clearly indicates that Japanese karate-do and the Olympic movement are deeply intertwined. They are not, as some erroneously contend, separate and exclusive entities. One can hardly deny the influence that Dr. Kano and his commitment to the Olympic movement had on Mr. Gichin Funakoshi. Furthermore, research indicates that Mr. Funakoshi intended to move karate-do in the direction of an Olympic sport.
 
Budo and Olympism
At one level, sports and budo have little in common. Harry Cook’s research tells us that the word "sport" is derived from the Greek word for "play" while budo is deadly serious and has nothing to do with "play." Conversely, budo idealizes killing and being killed in combat. On this level sport and budo have little in common. (Shotokan p. 91-92)

However, on another level, the spirit of the Olympic movement and the spirit of budo share quite a bit of common ground. They both profess to improve the quality of the life of their adherents, and they both endeavor to improve the character of their participants. According to Harry Cook’s research, this is in this direction that Mr. Funakoshi wished to take Japanese karate-do (Shotokan p. 92). Furthermore, it is on this level that Mr. Yamazaki remarked "This is where the East meets the West."

Please take a moment and compare the following statements. I am confident that you will find that the principles of budo and the philosophy of the modern the modern Olympic movement are quite congruous.
 
The Budo Charter – "The object of budo is to cultivate character, enrich the ability to make value judgments, and foster a well disciplined and capable individual through participation in physical and mental training utilizing martial techniques."

The Olympic Charter – "Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for fundamental ethical principles."

The Budo Charter – "When practicing daily, one must constantly follow decorum, adhere to the fundamentals, and resist the temptation to pursue mere technical skill rather than the unity of mind and technique."

The Olympic Charter – "Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind.

Conclusion
As Mr. Yamazaki points out, some "traditionalists" may resist the notion that traditional Japanese karate-do evolved with a sporting element. However, it is unrealistic to contend that traditional karate-do and modern sport karate-do share little in common; the research points us in a very different direction. The histories of Japanese karate-do and the modern Olympic movement are inextricably intertwined. Just as jujitsu evolved into judo, karate-jitsu evolved into karate-do. With this evolution, pure martial techniques were transformed into martial ways. "Techniques" with the purpose of maiming and killing became "ways" with a sporting element.

Although no one it contending that either Dr. Kano or Mr. Funakoshi intended for karate-do to lose all aspects of a martial art, it appears that they did intended for it to evolve with a sporting element. Some areas of the philosophy of budo and the philosophy of Olympism are mutually exclusive while others are mutually inclusive. It is in the area where these two philosophies meet where budo and sport exist simultaneously.
 
For a look at the entire article by Mr. Yamazaki that was quoted in this research, please refer to Dragon Times (Classical Fighting Arts) at the following web site:

http://www.dragon_tsunami.org/Dtimes/Pages/articledt16.htm