We so often hear that martial arts are good for our health and well-being, but is this always the truth? I would say in the main . . . . yes.
However I do feel that there are exceptions. All to often you hear of the more mature warriors amongst us having hip or knee operations. Many (who are not professional teachers) have to give up training all together. So if martial arts are a lifetime study (as is often said) how come the people who are left training over the age of 50 is such a small percentage.
Funakoshi, who introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan, said in his latter years that the Karate being trained at that time in Japan was very different to the Karate of his youth.
The Karate that Funakoshi would have learnt in his youth in Okinawa would have had a very strong emphasis on combat effectiveness. It also had a strong emphasis on health. Many masters were originally introduced to Karate training in their childhood because they were sickly children and Karate was seen as one of the best ways to improve their health.
So what happened to Karate after Funakoshi introduced it to Japan in the 1920’s?
At that time, having relatively recently been forcibly dragged out of centuries of isolation, Japan was modernising very fast. As such the Japanese saw the modern weapons imported from the West as the way to go and saw the old martial arts as obsolete except for physical and character development. Furthermore, Japan’s militaristic character at that time, especially during the build up for the war, meant more emphasis on toughening up and strengthening up quickly, rather than looking to the longer term health. Physically gruelling training was good for the spirit!
Emphasis on real combat was not really necessary in traditional martial arts as Japan was far more focused on how to use the newly found power of guns, warplanes and battleships. The subtleties of Okinawan karate would be dumbed down to make it more acceptable to Japanese popular ideas of the time. A more physical emphasis was required. Dumbing down also made it easier to teach to large classes.
Funakoshi focused on teaching in Universities which meant introducing Karate to the higher strata of Japanese society (hence more respectability for Karate). It also meant that as Karate was now being taught to relatively large numbers and as students left University and moved on, they did not form the deep relationship that the Funakoshi and his peers would have formed with their masters, so the transfer of knowledge would not have been quite so deep.
Unfortunately many of Funakoshi’s top students lost their lives during the war. By the end of the war, Funakoshi was in his late 70’s and although still training himself, was getting a bit old for regular teaching, so to a certain extent the surviving students had to work it out for themselves.
Furthermore the occupying American’s banned martial arts training. During the war, the Japanese had displayed a ferocious fighting spirit which for obvious reasons the Allies wanted to curb. The Japanese had to make a case that Karate was not a real martial art, but more a way for self development. As such, they got permission to train. However, traditional weapons like the Bo, Tonfa, Sai etc were dropped from the syllabus as the Japanese realised that they would really be pushing their luck to ask permission to train weapons (of any kind) as well. Karate was dumbed down even further.
With Funakoshi’s influence diminishing and most of his most knowledgeable students gone, Shotokan began to evolve (or devolve depending on how you look at it) into a forceful system with a heavy emphasis on the physical side. This led in part to the stances becoming longer and deeper placing more stress on the lower body joints. If you look at any photo’s of Funakoshi demonstrating technique, he is always in a fairly high stance. Shotokan was mainly derived from Okinawan Shorin Ryu (created by Yasutsune Itosu). If you go to Youtube and search for “Shorin Ryu kata”, you’ll see that most of their movements are done in a higher stance than modern Shotokan.
Just compare the Shorin Ryu and Shotokan versions of the same kata below:-
A large group wanted to hold competitions which Funakoshi vehemently opposed. However, after Funakoshi passed away in 1957, the movement to introduce competition went full throttle ahead and the first All Japan Championships were held that year. Again the emphasis on being fit, strong and athletic grew with the short term goal of winning competitions rather than longer term goal of life long health.
Okinawan Karate was would have expected most fights to be at relatively close range (which is how most real fights are) so it would have geared its techniques that way. But the new competition fighting where neither fighter was allowed to grab their opponent necessitated a longer range of fighting. This in turn necessitated being able to take long steps, to cover relatively large distances. This again creates more stress on our bodies and joints as we get older and was absent from the original Okinawan Karate.
High kicks (which had barely existed in Okinawan Karate) become much more common place, putting even more stresses on the body (especially hips and knees). Again if you watch Shorin Ryu kata on Youtube, you’ll see less emphasis on kicks. Furthermore, you won’t find Side Snap Kicks anywhere. In Shotokan kata where we use a Side Snap Kick, Shorin Ryu uses a Front Kick). Not only that, but the Shorin Ryu Front Kick is usually no more than groin height.
Side Snap Kick is one of the most difficult kicks of all for people who have hip and knee problems. It is also not nearly as practical as a Front Kick in most real combat situations. So why did Side Snap Kick replace the Front Kick in so many Shotokan katas and why did it end up usually being done at head height rather than groin height?
Well at that time, the Japanese had very little understanding of bunkai (fighting applications of the kata). Not only that, most of them were not really interested either. Kata competition was becoming very popular too and that was the driving force. Kata had to look good. The head height Side Snap Kick looked much better than the mid level Front Kick. Many techniques performed in Neko Ashi Dachi (Cat Stance) in the Shorin Ryu kata were changed to a much longer deeper Kokutsu Dachi (Back Stance) in Shotokan kata.
Much of this has improved over the years and many branches of Shotokan has change quite radically even in the time that I’ve been training. When I first started, we had to keep the back leg straight when performing any technique in Forward Stance. This put pressure on the lower back and hips. Now the back leg is slightly bent, relieving the pressure. This and many other modifications have greatly improved the way that we train today. In many ways many schools of Shotokan have become much “softer” in their training (and I softer as in how technique is performed, not as in “taking it easy”). However, many still train the old way and many styles (Japanese & Korean) which are derived from Shotokan still bear some of those old hallmarks.
Training can be great for health, but if you are not careful, it can be damaging to your body, especially hips, knees and lower back.