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- Written by Mark.Cramer
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After the Second World War, Japan lay in ruins, and those forces which had propelled Japan down the road of nationalism and militarism were blamed for its demise. Consequently, the program of Kokutai (national essence) which not only perused creating homogeneous empire but also pursued instilling the militaristic ideals of the samurai into the general population was abandoned.[i] Additionally, the Dai Nippon Butokukai which had both regulated and promoted Japan’s martial traditions was temporarily abolished because it was viewed as having promoted militarism and was consequently associated with the war.[ii]
After the war, Japanese culture was changing rapidly in an effort to abandon its militaristic past and to seek a new and peaceful direction for its future. Mr. Teruyuki Okazaki explains: “Before the war, nationalism was everything. During the war, it was militarism and brainwashing. After the war there was a 180 degree (turn) to pacifism, and wholehearted attempts to copy the US.”[iii]
A New Direction for Karate in Japan
The old approach of teaching karate as a martial art was identified with the war and Japan’s defeat, and it was felt that the Western approach of teaching karate as a competitive sport would be much better. Mr. Masatoshi Nakayama, a Shotokan karate master, tells us that competitive sports were flourishing in the social-political climate of post-war Japan, and that he was concerned that if karate continued to be taught as a deadly martial art, the public would reject it. As a result, he endeavored to move karate in the direction of a competitive sport.[iv] Consequently in order for karate to survive in this atmosphere, the old martial attitudes which were associated with the war and Japan’s defeat were to be discarded, and new attitudes which were associated with competitive sports were to be adopted.
In addition to the social-political forces which moved karate in the direction of a competitive sport, there were also some very practical reasons for this shift. After the war, karate’s popularity increased. When the Allied occupying forces suspended the Butokukai, they also temporarily suspended the practice of both judo and kendo believing that these martial arts had contributed to the militarism which led to the Pacific War. Consequently, many people turned their interest away from Japan’s indigenous martial arts and began to practice karate which had somehow avoided the suspension. This immediately increased the demand for karate instruction and subsequently led to a severe shortage of qualified karate instructors in Japan.[v]
Moreover, the shortage of qualified instructors in Japan was caused by more than just an increase in the demand for karate instruction. We must keep in mind that karate was not introduced into Japan until the 1920s, and that there had been less than a generation to train a cadre of skilled instructors. To make matters worse, karate training was suspended during the war, and some of those who had trained in karate before the war died during the conflict either in the military or as a result of the allied bombing. As a result, there were relative few people in Japan who were qualified to teach karate. Shoshin Nagamine confirms this: “The reasons for the instructor shortage can be attributed to the comparatively brief history of karate in Japan, war damage, and the discontinuance of karate training during the war.”[vi]
Furthermore, it was found that teaching karate as a sport was less demanding than teaching karate as a martial art. It takes years of in-depth study under the guidance of a highly trained instructor to properly learn a kata (formal exercise) and its corresponding bunkai (self-defense applications), but it takes considerably less time and training to learn karate as a sport. Consequently, instructors with relatively little experience were sent out to teach the increasing number of students who were enrolling in the sport of karate.[vii]
The change in Japan’s social-political climate and the shortage of experienced instructors affected the direction that karate-do would take in the second half of the twentieth century. Japanese karate adopted more of a Western sporting attitude and discarded some of its older martial arts’ principles. In the early 1950s the first rules of sport karate competition were developed in Japan, and by 1957 the first All Japan Karate-do Championships were showcased in Tokyo.[viii]
Karate in Okinawa
However, since karate had been long established in Okinawa, they were less affected by the shortage of qualified instructors and less inclined to teach karate as a sport. Whereas the karate masters in Okinawa understood the motives for the Japanese teaching karate as a competitive sport, some of the older karate masters in Okinawa believed that it was a mistake for the Japanese to abandon karate’s martial arts past. They believed that by teaching karate as a sport, the Japanese were sacrificing the content of karate’s curriculum for an increase in its popularity. Okinawan karate master, Shoshin Nagamine, explains this point of view: “Considering its cause just, karate in Japan opted for success and popularity over content and depth. As a consequence, karate [in Japan] is beginning to lose its value as a martial art with the increase in worldwide popularity.”[ix]
Mr. Eiichi Miyazato, a well-respected master of Okinawan Goju Ryu, agrees with Mr. Nagamine. He too expressed skepticism for what will result from the increased popularity of karate and the resulting shift toward teaching karate as a sport: “There are a number of problems that arise with the spread of Karate. The sudden increase in student numbers inevitable results in a lack of trained instructors. With this, the quality of the instruction decreases, and the art is transformed into a sport. Such a transformation entails the loss of the very essence of Karate.”[x]
Furthermore, many of the Okinawan karate instructors of this period believed that karate could remain popular without forsaking its traditional past. As we recall from Chapter 1, the pioneers of Okinawan karate altered the outward appearance of the Chinese martial arts in order to adapt it to the needs of the Okinawans. However, these great karate masters never altered what was essential in the Chinese martial arts. Many of the post-World War II karate masters in Okinawa believed that karate could be adapted in order to make it suitable to the post-war society without losing its essence. In this manner, karate could become popular without sacrificing its core values. Shoshin Nagamine explains: “Karate, like all things classical, has the potential to meet the demands of various ages and to produce something new out of itself without rejecting those basic elements upon which it was founded. The formal training methods of the great masters must be observed because karate was meant to be pursued as a martial art, not as a sport where the goal is defeating an opponent or winning points. Karate has an ancient heritage, full of wisdom. Let us follow the way of karate as shown to us by the ancient masters.”[xi]
The Future of Traditional Karate-Do
Ever since the end of the Second World War, traditional karate masters have rejected the extreme nationalism that the program of Kokutai (National Essence) instilled into karate during the early twentieth century. In its place karate has adopted a Western format of sport competition. Today, the once secretive martial art of Okinawa is being practiced globally, and some of its world-wide success and popularity can be attributed to karate being promoted as a competitive sport. Presently, there are national governing bodies for sport karate-do in one hundred eighty-three countries which are affiliated with the World Karate-do Federation, the world governing body for Olympic-style sport karate-do. At this writing, karate is one of a “short list” of sports being considered for admission into the Olympic Games. Moreover, there are many other national and international sport karate organizations which sponsor competitive events for karate.
In today’s world, competitive sports are highly regarded by the public and are also part of a global economy. Nations covet hosting the Olympic Games not only because of the national pride which is associated with being the host, but also because of the anticipation of the positive impact the games will have on their economy. Consequently, Olympic-style sport karate does not appear to be fading into oblivion in the near future. Will traditional karate-do be able to meet the demands of the 21st century, preserve the formal training methods of the great masters, and produce something new out of itself without rejecting those basic elements upon which it was founded?
 The lives of the great karate masters of the past are discussed in Section Two of this book.
 See Chapter 25 Traditional Karate-do and The Modern Olympic Movement
[i] McKenna, Mario, Dragon Times: Vol. 17 page 9
[ii] Cook, Harry: Shotokan Karate, page 119
[iii] Cook, Harry: Shotokan Karate, page 162
[iv] Cook, Harry: Shotokan Karate, page 162
[v] Nagamine, Shoshin: The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, page 25
[vi] Nagamine, Shoshin: The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, page 25
[vii] Nagamine, Shoshin: The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, page 26
[viii] Cook, Harry: Shotokan Karate, page 164
[ix] Nagamine, Shoshin: The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, page 26
[x] Miyazato Eiichi: Okinawan Den Goju Ryu Karate-do: Preface
[xi] Nagamine, Shoshin: The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, page 30