I was watching the Karate Kid, the original movie from 1984, with my own kids and it really highlighted the differences from Americanized Karate and the original martial arts from Asia. One of the common things I've seen written on blogs by Karate students when they travel to Okinawa to train in actual Karate is their surprise at how different it is from what they trained in the US and how incompetent they felt in class, even though they had a multi-striped black belt. Why is this? And why is Karate nothing like the Samurai arts, doesn't it descend from the Samurai? (the answer is no) Well, we have to understand some of the history of Karate in the US and our perception of martial arts.
So, to simplify a long history into one blog article, I will have to generalize a bit and not go through specific lines of schools in depth. First off, no, Karate does not descend from the Samurai martial arts, they are quite separate. Karate was developed in Okinawa because of Japan annexing the island nation of Okinawa into the nation of Japan in the 1600s. Okinawan people were forbidden by law to carry weapons, they were a newly conquered people and the Samurai didn't want to deal with insurrection. So, Karate was developed as a method of self-defense without weapons. Karate literally means "empty hand."
Fast forward a couple hundred years and we are in the Meiji Era, when governmental power was taken away from the Shogun and given to the Emperor after a revolution. The Samurai caste system was abolished and the Samurai lost their status as the ruling class. As a result, many of the schools that taught swordsmanship and combat had to changed focus because they taught mostly samurai warriors. Many died out completely. The ones that remained around changed to strictly Iaido, Kendo, Aikido, Judo, or Jujutsu, forgetting their combat purpose in favor of one that could thrive in an era of peace. Karate from Okinawa started to gain some popularity in Japan at this time also because it was already well suited for sport fighting rather than combat.
Fast forward again, and we are at the end of WWII. The US military has established bases on the island of Okinawa. The American GIs see Karate for the first time in Okinawa and some of them get taught a few lessons while they are stationed in Okinawa. Korean styles like Taekwondo (developed in 1950s) and Tang Soo Do (renewed in 1945 from an older style Soo Bahk Do) also gained in interest from GIs stationed in Korea. Much like Okinawa, Koreans were forbidden to have weapons and even practice martial arts during Japanese occupation. Tang Soo Do had to borrow heavily from Okinawan Karate to give rebirth to their art, so it is very similar to Karate and they often even use Japanese terms rather than Korean ones and in the US Tang Soo Do is often just referred to as Karate. They come back home and establish some of the first Karate schools in America.
The problem is, at most they've had two or three years of training, only when given leave from the base to train. In other words, their training was extremely incomplete. You can't learn an entire martial arts system in three years with no previous martial arts background, even with daily practice, especially not enough to become a Sensei. So, schools pop up all across the country, with former GIs teaching the little they learned in Okinawa, filling in the gaps with things they make up. They come up with fun or cute names for their dojo because they can't actually use the name of the style they learned in Okinawa because they weren't given a teaching license for that style. So they call their school Dragon Warrior Karate, Red Dragon Karate, or Cobra Kai Karate (Karate Kid movie reference) and the like. Then we hit 1984 and the iconic Karate Kid movie is released. And Karate gains a surge in popularity. Dojos literally doubled in membership overnight because of that movie. It's a great movie. Like a teen aged Rocky. So, McDojos pop up all over the country to meet the demand, like McDonalds, hence the name McDojo. There isn't a regulatory commission in the US that governs martial arts schools. You don't need a license to open one. So, they can open all over the place without regard to them having any credentials to teach. My teaching license actually comes from Japan and is written in Japanese, from the head of our martial art style. But there are teachers who get their license from the internet, from video home study courses, while others don't bother with a license at all.
So, when students of these martial arts schools go over to Asia, they often find that what they learned is vastly different from what is actually practiced in the birth place of the martial art they study. And now you understand why there is such a vast difference between what is taught in Asia vs. the US. Now, as more practitioners have gone to Asia to study, they often come back determined to practice correctly and teach it correctly. It can be very hard to sort these teachers out from the ones who never leave their home town, let alone travel to Asia just to do martial arts. So ask: How many times has the Sensei been to Asia for training (not because their work sent them there and they trained in one class during the trip). Can I see your teaching license? And who issued this license? Is it issued from the head of the original martial art, or some group in the US like the World Soke Council that issues certificates to teachers they've never even met, or some guru selling online courses or DVDs (or VHS tapes in the 80s and 90s) and you get a black belt and a teacher license at the completion of the course?
And remember, Karate and Samurai developed completely apart from each other. Studying Karate does not mean you are studying they ancient warrior arts of the Samurai. The first Karate school I attended as an elementary school child had a big colorful mural of two Samurai fight on a bridge. There was a set of Katana at the front of the dojo. It was really cool and I thought, "man, I'm studying real Samurai stuff." I wasn't, I later learned in high school it had no connection to Samurai and the swords were just for show, they were taught as part of the art. This led me to searching for an actual, original, Samurai martial art style. It took me a few years of research and visiting dojos and trying them out. Then I learned about the Bujinkan and the direct connection to the Samurai and Ninja of Japan, dating back over 1,000 years of history. The Sensei I found trained in Japan with the head of the art and could move like nothing I'd ever seen before. I was hooked from that moment on. Now, I've made several trips to Japan myself specifically for training. My teaching license was issued from Japan by the head of the art, Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi. Dr. Hatsumi was made the Soke (head of a martial arts family or lineage) by his teacher, the previous Soke, Tsohitsugu Takamatsu. Takamatsu was made the Soke by his grandfather, Toda Shinryuken Masamitsu. And this direct passing of the martial art goes back for 34 generations from our current Soke. This is one of the oldest, most effective, true martial arts taught anywhere in the world still today. So, if you are looking for Karate in Meridian Idaho, and you want to study a marital art with a deep heritage, and learn the combat arts of the Samurai, come try a free class.
Shane Sensei is a licensed Shidoshi in the Bujinkan and member of the Shidoshi-Kai. He has trained in the Bujinkan since 1998 and regularly travels to Japan for training.