The Artsy Fartsy Secret of Karate’s Obsession With Old Masters

A black belt from our dojo asked me the other day:

“Jesse-san… why are we Karate people always so “obsessed” [airquotes] with imitating old masters?”

I looked at him, and he must have sensed my “WTF?” hanging in the air, because he quickly continued:

“I mean, don’t get me wrong now, I don’t mean to be disrespectful. But soccer players don’t kick the ball in the exact way that some famous old historical soccer players did, neither do ice hockey players imitate old ice hockey legends. They don’t argue between clubs about who is more ‘true to history’, more ‘traditional’ or more ‘orthodox’. So, if other sports don’t, then why do we?”

Impressive.

Good question.

Look at other martial arts. Do MMA fighters try to replicate double leg takedowns as they were done 150 years ago? I doubt it. Still, we, as Karate people, are almost proud to tell beginners that “our style has remained unchanged since master X passed away, Y years ago!”.

Like that would somehow make a difference to them.

So why do we in Karate repeatedly need to brag about our lineages and masters? Why do we feel the need to constantly refer to dead guys in black and white photos? Is it to *gasp* justify our own fear or lack of knowledge?! Perhaps.

I’ll tell you what though: The real reason, I believe, to why history, culture, old masters and straight lineages have always been so incredibly important to Karate practititioners is mainly because of one interesting reason:

Because Karate is an art.

A martial art.

Better yet, a smartial art.

And to understand this even better, you could compare Karate to another form of art.

Painting.

Look at Van Gogh. You know, the famous Dutch painter.

In the days when Vincent was painting, he often sold his work for just enough money to cover the cost of paints and canvas. Back then, his ideas and his paintings were one and the same, and neither was held in very high regard. However, over the last hundred years or so, something changed. Instead of selling for $200, or $2,000 or even $20,000, it’s not unusual to read of a $10,000,000 sale of a genuine Van Gogh.

Over time, his paintings have increased in value with each sale – but the actual paintings haven’t changed at all, have they? They’re still the exact same painting!

Just like we tell ourselves Karate is.

And that’s the key.

In Vincent’s case, what’s changed is not the actual piece of art, but the value of his ideas. More precisely, the value we today attach to the whole process that generated the ideas which ultimately formed the piece of art we now so highly regard. It’s a manifestation. Still, it’s easy to get a reproduction of a Van Gogh today. For a few hundred dollars, you can even get a painted reproduction that only a trained expert can tell isn’t the original.

So why pay twenty million dollars?

Because it’s art.

It’s more, much more, than the mere end result.

Compare this inexorable and dramatic increase in value with the resale value of a regular newspaper though. A newspaper contains news, discoveries and reports from the whole world, in one handy packet. Pretty cool when you think about it. Yet, today’s newspaper is “worth” roughly fifty cents to a dollar. And yesterday’s paper is virtually worthless! If you’ve got a big stack of them, you’re even going to have to pay someone to take them away.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Why? What happened?

Simple: the newspaper is a vessel for ideas with very short half-lives, and once the ideas aren’t fresh any more, they’re worthless. And besides, we don’t place any special value in the process of creating a newspaper. We know it’s 90% machinery. (Imagine, though, how much you could sell tomorrow’s paper for!)

The thing is, just like in every art I suppose, that the process is always more interesting than the end-result.

More exactly, how did we/it/you/they get here, and why?

(Back to Karate, for those of you who haven’t been following along:)

Whereas other modern combat sports couldn’t care less about who founded their style/method/system of combat, how they did it “in ye olde days” and whatnot, we in Karate are a bit different. The thing with modern tournament-based combat sport is that when you use it for utilitarian purposes, as most people do, you can’t help but only judge the end result. And there is no art in mere utility, there are just products.

Fighters, champions, winners, medalists.

Titles and awards.

So, unless you know for sure that your end-result is going to be awesome (like if you practise MMA and know you’re going to the UFC) or if you genuinely want to feel like a product, go ahead. Forget the art. People have been doing that for ages, all around the earth.

But, be aware that the ‘earth’ without ‘art’ is just ‘eh’.

People can make their own Van Goghs with a computer in a couple of hours. Heck, people make far cooler web graphics and designs every day! But they still use brush and canvas. Why? Becuase they enjoy the process! Art is not just what you make but how you make it. And unless you know about past awesomeness (lineages, masters, history), you can never foresee how to make, and keep making, more future awesomeness. To keep improving. Keep learning.

Keep evolving.

Your art, Karate, isn’t just the “what” of the end result, but also “how” you got there. Thus, as a Karate practitioner, your job duty is to communicate the human experience which forms the shoulders you and I are currently standing on. This we do by studying not only the present, but also the past. Studying, and thereby placing value in, the process.

Learning from the numerous crossroads our own masters valiently faced.

So, I urge you to consider Karate an art, if you already don’t.

Sure, sports is great, self-defense is cool and physical training is healthy, but why limit yourself? I also urge you to question yourself and the things you’re doing, the next time you’re thinking about Karate.

You see, “Did it work?” is not a question for art.

That’s a question for your washing machine.

Questions for art is:

  • Did you bring your insides out?
  • Did you acknowledge the lump in your throat?
  • Did you express the essence of the art?
  • Did you try something with a new twist? Something risky?
  • Did you move from your heart?
  • Did you kick life into Karate?

We must put just as much time into our “how” and our “why”, as we do our “what”.

Or else Karate becomes an empty vessel…

I once heard that an artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it. I like that. You know how we in Karate always say that we’re ‘never done’? That training ‘never stops’? That there’s always something ‘new to improve’?

Well, there you go.

“But Jesse-san… How can Karate be an art when it’s not free? We are constrained in so many ways! Rules for this, rules for that… The word “kata” even means “form”!”

True.

We are limited. Especially when it comes to things like kata (unless you subscribe to that freestyle stuff).

But what you need to know is that art actually consists of limitation.

My homeboy Leonardo da Vinci even said it himself: “The greatest art is created in the smallest rooms.” Meaning, it’s not about ‘merely’ breaking out of the proverbial box, but redefining the actual box itself.

Why? Because the former means acknowledging the existance of a box, while the latter makes the box actually disappear.

The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.

Holding it all together…

 Okay, okay. So we need some limitations to properly express ourselves. But what about these old ineffective techniques and dusty theories people keep tossing around? It’s the 21st century after all!

I see what you mean.

Like, somehow, just because somebody else, in another day and age, decided on something, things are suddenly supposed to be logical?

Like, just because Funakoshi Gichin’s first batch of mainland students changed all kicks to jodan in every Shotokan kata, you need to keep doing that?

Like, for some reason, just because Itosu Anko created five Pinan kata to make his Karate more simple and safe for school kids, you can’t practise dirty finger jabs for a couple of minutes every Karate class?

Like, just because Chojun Miyagi popularized the use of simple Karate-style weight training implements back in the days, you can’t go to the high tech gym around the corner and learn all about plyometric shock training, the myotatic stretch reflex, anaerobic treshold and other scientific stuff?

Of course you can.

Your art is your art.

In the end, no matter what you believe Karate to be, art or not, you must forget about these artsy-fartsy theories anyway and hit the dojo. Forget chanting mantras. Roll up the gi sleeves. To use the painting analogy again; you can study brushes, colors and pigments how much you want, but it will never make you a master painter.

Practise will.

As the saying goes, there can be no art without suffering.

Van Gogh lost his ear to prove a point.

Cry in the dojo, laugh on the battlefield.

It’s your art.

Be an artist.

26 Comments

  • Nice read... Very eye-opening. It all makes sense. The analogies are perfect.I started out training karate, just as an extracurricular thing. Then as I got my brown belt, I started training competitively, mostly kumite. I was one of those kumite guys who don't know shit about kata.But when I got my black-belt, it's a whole different story. I did no just want to improve in kumite skills but also understand the history of the kata as well. Now, as a young instructor, I find myself explaining about the kata, basics and histories of other ryuha to black-belts from those ryuha who are now my students.But fighting skill still is important to me.
  • patrick
    As always great article Jesse thanks !!!
  • Dan Killingsworth
    Love this. It really ties into the idea that in order to truly understand a kata, that you must make it your own. You must make it art. 'My' Niahanchi Shodan is the same on a technical level as everyone else's, but the heart and soul I put into it each time I practice it makes it my own. It becomes my expression of karate and my 'art.'
  • Charlie L
    Love it love it love it!Excellent blog post Jesse! Am going to read it again because it is so profound. Especially loving the "what's Earth without art...?".Am off to paint a picture. ;-)Charlie
  • Matt
    Smartial art! U berry funny.
  • Ian
    Jesse-san, great post, as always! This is my first comment on your blog, which I have been following on-and-off since the site had a different design. Over the past couple of weeks, I've been studying your posts and other Karate books that I have. You've helped me to understand that our art if forever changing. Every time something is transmitted from sensei/sempai to student, changes (minute or substantial can be made) and thus our art evolves. It's not new, it's been happening since the beginning, and will continue to happen. I guess that's the beauty of it, lol. Keep up the great work!!!
    • Ian-san, thanks for making your presence felt!
  • Diego Romero
    i for one support more critical thinking in martial arts training, for great vengeance and glorious face punching!
  • Fatihsan
    Hi Jesse; Thanks for your continuous support.“Karate wa kunshi no bugei.”"Karate is the martial art of intelligent people."http://www.siyahkusak.com.tr/component/content/article/1512.html
  • warrioress
    You have spoken for me Jesse. Great post. Cheers.
  • Jim
    I think that another reason we worship our old masters ,and other heroes of karate is that many instructors are insecure and have low self-esteem, and are looking for something in life to provide them with a sense of self-worth and give them status. Karate rank and belonging to an organization gives some people these things. Titles such as Hanshi and Shihan, and Renshi make some instructors feel more worthy. Talking about lineage and where their art came from can give one a feeling of belonging and a sense of self-worth.Is this bad? Certainly not. Everyone needs to feel needed, and part of a group. It is a sense of belonging that people have needed since the beginning of civilization. It is only when this need or desire for a connection takes priority over other aspects of life such as responsibility to one's job or family, that it can become a hindrance to one's growth as a person.
    • Everest
      I only follow a instructor if he/she has fantastic technique. I then couldn't care less about their personal habit (drinking, smoking, want to be loved). If they can teach me the mental side fantastic! From these posts am I the only one?
  • To the gentleman that wrote you saying no one in sports imitate the legends of that sport...uh, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, hello?? These two guys literally changed the way basketball was played, Jordan with offense, Russell with defense. The Fab Five from Michigan were the first team in college history to wear baggy shorts, which they admittedly got from Jordan. Rebounding wasn't even an official statistic in basketball until after Russel retired, and many defensive players study his tapes on rebounding and blocking.They even imitate in boxing. Boxers study and take techniques from the the legends all the time. Muhammad Ali said that he took a lot from Sugar Ray Robinson, and many boxers took pages from Ali's book. Let's not even talk about how many times Bruce Lee has been imitated in film and in bedroom and bathroom mirrors all over the world. Bruce Lee himself is a study in taking from other people's playbook, learning from Yip Man, Jhoon Rhee, Gene LaBell, and others.Everytime we pop in an instructional DVD or read an instructional book - whether it's martial arts, sports, or carpentry - and we do exactly what's in the book, we are imitating someone. Imitation is our first and most basic form of education. It's the beginning part of the learning process, though one we must eventually graduate from. The onlt way imitation is a bad thing is if you're stuck in it, and all you're doing is imitating other people.
    • Everest
      Spot on!
  • Ed
    Your perspective is interesting but I think there is another way to look at it. Consider karate is a model for both how to fight and not fight. That dualism is there if you shift your perspective back to the idea that martial arts is intended to brings the body, mind and spirit into harmony and control, not just to kick someone's ass. It becomes a type of 'religion' on how to live your life and interact with other people. I can see this with the zen like behavior of some grandmasters and the origins of karate in buddist monks. This is why I think people try to learn the original version of a kata, they approach it as a religion and strive to model the masters, to follow in their footsteps and experience what the masters did to reach the same pinnacle of enlightenment. Is reaching this same pinnacle possible if you start following someone who takes a kata, doesn’t learn it properly, modifies it with different moves here and there to suit their desires and then present it as the original? I guess that it depends on what you are looking for in your karate experience and what you're willing to accept. It is all up to you.
    • Everest
      From a spiritual perspective I wouldn't have thought that the origins of kata would matter. It is what the idividual puts into it. So the kata could consist of only two high kicks and then called annan, it wouldn't matter (on a spiritual level). In zen you are supposed to find enlightenment in the mundane, simple tasks (I'm sure a monk achieved enlightenment throught brushing a floor). I have yet to come across any instructor who teaches any buddism etc in a class, only punching and kicking so far. If you have, point me the right way :)
      • Ed
        Karate is what you make of it, don't be offended by something you don't understand. My suggestion would be to find a karate style that is more traditional and less 'kmart' style.
        • Everest
          Hi ed, don't worry I'm not offended, I just like to stir the pot to get everyones opinions to give me a new perspective. I am intrigued how I'm doing kmart karate especially as you don't know me, but hey I'm just trying to better myself if kmart does that then so be it. Hirokuzu kanazawa once said I am yet to meet a teacher who puts emphasis on the spiritual side of karate (can't remember the exact quote) in an interview with mike clarke. If either of them are kmart I proud to be in their company. :) A senior one day turned to me and said you can give up karate now (with a rye smile). He said you have acheived your goal you can handle yourself in a fight so what's the point in continuing. One thing they have taught me is to think outside the box and don't take things on face value.
  • brian
    Hi all and jesse-sanI commented to jesse about this a few weeks ago and decided to share my thoughts(such as they are)One of the reasons people have such a high obbsseion for the "old timers" teachers of the late 19th and early to mid twentithy century is in one part culutural. You have to remmeber that teachers in most far eastern cultures are given a far greater dagree of respect then hear in the west in part beacuse of confucian and neo-confucian ideas and just the eastern respect for the elderly.( which in some ways is good and others has been a detrement to eastern culture)Also the other big thing is that many older masters of tma/cma could do and did what many of the MMA/NHB/RBSD/ complain TMA/CMA do't do.Most old teachers and students did cross train in other systems and with other teachers many teachers new others and would invite them over and or send students to leran things not to saying all did this but many did if you read anything on many old karate or kung fu guys you here all this.( now not many did cross training in the mma terms i.e submission stuff though some did) Also many if not all did weight traing,conditiong exercises,cardio and calistiics.( there is some vid proof as far as the weight traing the old vid of goju-ryu in the 1930s of jinan shinzato miyagis piked sucessor it shows them useing traditional weightt raing equipment and many in the vid are as well built as many pro mma guys) Also it is bunk that the old teachers did not spare and test there stuff. again many did many did not you read and hear about such all the time(in fact cross traing,and grappaling and fairlly hard core sparing use to be very common especially in japanese karate up until the 60s and early 70s according to Mr.henry cook and some of the guys he trained with).Also people admire the old masters beacuse of the dagree that they trained was very much like semi-pro and pro mma guys. In china it is called "eating bitter" ie blood,sweet,tears and hard work. They trained in most ways that your average and some what above MA of today would balk at becasue of the time and severity put in. We have to remmber many of the things we had to day like tv,radio and other forms of entertainment they dident have 50 to 60 years ago so they could devot the time to becomeing good.it is also bunk that things were unchange it depended on the teacher . TMA/CMA guys always were adding and takeing away stuff most of what was unchange were the core techniques and tactics that to me is what is the defining thing of a style/system.It also depended on the teacher what was added and taken away which to me is a reason to study lineage.We should respect what the old teachers did because they laid the foundation for us.it does not mean we should not change or look at things critically but also does not mean we should just toss things out or add them because it is the latest thing. You hear all the time of people looking at the old way's for new insperation or going back to them beacsue they do things modern stuff dos not.that's my two cents thankyou brian
    • Joe
      Thanks for saving me a lot of typing.
  • Mukesh
    As usual a nice and profound read with witty use of word "what is earth without art", love it and many thanks for sharing such wonderful ideas.
  • Hi Jesse,As both a Karateka and also a practising Artist (2009 BFA Grad), I found this article very interesting and would like to share a brief insight that I feel didn't get mentioned but is worth mentioning...The ultimate goal of most artists (all backgrounds) is to get to a point where they are able to make their OWN art and are recognized for the quality of their own art. However, along the way, students of art must practice all the various basics and theories present in the old masters of their respective art forms.To simplify, when studying painting, I practised many different techniques and researched many different styles in order to obtain the most well rounded understanding of painting. Eventually, after years of studying the work of others, I found ways of making paintings that were all my own, although heavily influenced by previous painters from history.If one looks at an old master of Karate, they are not so different than an old master of painting. Both were doing something new and perhaps a little bit radical for their time, both were looking into techniques that were effective and ones that were not. Both were drawing on the knowledge of those who came before them.One cannot wake up and create something without first being inspired by something else.Great post.-Aidan
    • Andy
      I'm saddened to think most artists' goal is to be recognized.
  • Paul Dupre
    Fantastic Article and right on the idea. It reflects what many Okinawan and Japanese Masters have said for years. Sport Karate is a short-term pursuit. Karate an an Art or as I prefer to call it Budo or Bujitsu is a Life long pursuit and experience. The Goal is not to accumulate degrees or Rank, but to explore various aspects and to perfect ones own version of the Art/Budo ! Certain techniques were developed for a certain kind of Body Type and need to be modified for personal use by others. In the same way certain Kata were originated by men who had a certain Body Type or a preference for techniques they were good at. However you need to explore and adapt for your own use. Also the more exposure to different types of Karate or different Ryuha and other Martial Arts, the more options you will have in your own personal arsenal of techniques.
  • Thomas
    Wow, I think this may be your best article yet! Inspired, almost like.. art. :D

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