Modern Karate vs Classical Karate; what's missing?
by Víctor López Bondía (2017)

It's been a few years since I started to drift away from modern Karate and eventually left it behind, but I guess things mustn't have changed that much over the past few years... When I was involved in modern Karate, I liked it and I used to enjoy the training, but after some years of practice and research I started to question it as I realized that the kind of Karate I was doing might not be the well-rounded self-defence system it was supposed to be. There seemed to be some missing links. Some of them I would start to figure out by myself while others would only unfold when I finally became a student of Okinawan Karate.

If I have to highlight the differences between modern Karate and classical Karate, the first thing that comes to mind is the place where practice is carried out. People who train and teach modern Karate normally do so in hired halls or sports facilities rather than a dojo. The difference may seem insignificant, but it's huge.

Traditional dojo are usually attached or even part of the family home of the karateka who use it. This reveals not only a certain level of commitment to the art but also the private and non-professional nature of the training/teaching. Those who practise classical Karate usuallly have a dedicated place to do so whenever they wish and as much as they wish; those who are members of a modern Karate club, however, normally have their practice limited to scheduled classes twice or three times a week.

Gishinkan Dojo
The back of my garage hosts my private dojo

In addition to this, traditional dojo are frequently places where the karateka not only get on with their physical training but also learn about the history, lineage and ethical and philosophical principles of their system. In traditional dojo one can find an array of items (pictures, kanji, etc) and activities (bowing, soji) which are considered as important as the physical training. All of them are there for a reason and can provide (at least) one valuable lesson. Unfortunately, the opposite is true in modern Karate as the empty rooms where the training takes place just display a picture of the founder (whose actual teachings are frequently unknown and disregarded), and perhaps some dojo kun, if you are lucky. To be fair, I have to say that "bowing" was the first thing I was taught when I took up Karate as a teenager and "the bow" can still be found in every class, seminar and competition; the question is, is it an honest display of courtesy and respect carried out with the right heart and mindset or just an empty gesture?

In an authentic traditional dojo, right after bowing, the new student would be introduced to the first "training tool" they should pick up: a broom. The floor is meant to be swept by the students before each lesson and mopped afterwards, once the training is over and the pictures and the equipment have been wiped. Soji (cleaning) is important. It's a humbling activity that teaches the students that they should take responsibility, look after the place they are taking advantage of, and contribute to its maintenance. If we take into account that traditional dojo are non-commercial and only charge the students a very small fee, if at all, soji provides the students with a good opportunity to give something back. Unfortunately, I have only had the chance to witness and experience soji within the Shinsokai (even after training at some makeshift dojo outdoors).

Another essential element of classical Karate I found missing in modern Karate is the kigu, i.e. training tools. Most tools are not easy to carry around so it's not hard to imagine why kigu-undo was gradually neglected and almost died out once Karate was taken out of the private dojo to be spread massively. Kigu-undo seems to have risen in popularity in recent years, but it's not so clear if the karateka who have now discovered it for the first time will be able to appreciate it for what it is: not just (old-fashioned) strength training and conditioning but a very clever method to improve Karate techniques and bring them to life, thanks to the resistance and feedback provided by these inanimate but relentless "training partners".

Kigu - Gishinkan Dojo
Some of the kigu (tools) used at the Gishinkan Dojo

Modern karateka seldom put their techniques to the test since they don't use any tools, all their kata and kihon training is carried out in thin air, and when they partner up is to practice ineffective blocks and strikes (which need to be pulled back) against a compliant partner, not to mention the fencing-like sports kumite which has very little to do with either real combat or self-defence. Because of this, they never learn about body structure, joint alignment or how to engage the right muscles, and they end up focusing on polishing the outer appearance of their techniques, rather than developing a good feeling for them, in the (mistaken) belief that, if a technique looks right, then it must be correct so it should work just fine when push comes to shove. This may bring about an unrealiable sense of selfconfidence.

I think a good example of lack of knowledge or misunderstanding can be found in the way the concept of "tanden" is explained (just theoretically) in modern Karate: "A spot somewhere below the navel which is considered in the East to be a major source of energy/power". This leads many to believe (or disbelieve) the tanden is a mystical concept realating to some kind of superhuman power stemming from one's tummy. To the best of my knowledge as a student of Okinawan Karate, the tanden is indeed extremely important, but nothing more than the engagement of the abdominal and lower-back muscles in order to be able to use whole-body power once you manage to link the limbs to the body. Nothing mystical but something very physical and well known as the "core" by any athlete worth their salt.

In Okinawan Karate techniques are based on principles which are meant to make them no only effective but also efficient. In my time doing modern Karate I was never taught how to control the elbow, engage the tanden, link my arms to my body or use my back muscles. There were some theories ("keep a low stance","use your hips") but at the end of the day it all came down to "good form" and "faster, stronger", and I found myself wanting to become faster and stronger but I didn't really know how to do it; endless repetitions didn't seem to be enough.

Another difference between classical Karate and modern Karate is that, in the former, all the elements are actually "spokes of the same wheel", so to speak, and you try to move the same way no matter what you are doing (kata, kigu-undo, two-person drills...) and working on one aspect results in improving all the rest. However, in modern Karate the two main elements, i.e. kata and kumite, are so unrelated that could well be regarded as completely different activities.

And last but not least, I'd have to say that the way kata renshu is approached is quite different too. While modern Karate focuses on the outer shell and most of the movements are dramatically misunderstood, classical Karate is concerned about both making techniques effective and efficient, and also studying and figuring out not only the meaning of the movements but also the strategies the kata is trying to pass on.

In conclusion, I have found that classical Okinawan Karate is a complete art which preserves all the elements that are needed to equip a person with both the physical and mental strength to do the right thing and stand up for what they believe in the face of a conflict or predicament. There's nothing wrong with modern Karate, but over the years it's been increasingly watered down to suit the masses, and the influence of sport and commercialism has been massive and takes its toll. I think modern Karate can no longer be considered a martial art or self-defence system but just a sport or recreational activity like any other.

Víctor López Bondía
October 2017

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”