Over on my other weblog I've been asked what I found wrong with Shotokan karate. A good question. I trained in this Japanese-based martial art for about nine years. Then I flew the Shotokan coop and earned a black belt in a less traditional mixed style after three-plus additional years of training.
Now I'm almost three years into an almost exclusive emphasis on Tai Chi – which most decidedly also is a marital art. Some would say the ultimate martial art. But who's to say?
The trend line of my martial arts philosophy was expressed in the title of my "I'm getting softer with age" post. I used to enjoy feeling, like most Shotokan practitioners do, that this hardest of the hard style karate systems could kick the butt of any other style.
But now I'm not into arguing about absolutes. Which is a big part of the reason I grew disenchanted with the absolutist mentality of Shotokan. Back in 2000, when I was thinking about shifting to a different style, I came across a web site called "Shotokan Planet."
[Update: Notwithstanding what I said below, Rob Redmond’s marvelous collection of Shotokan writings is still around in a different Internet incarnation. I searched for the articles mentioned below that I liked so much. Couldn’t find them. Redmond doesn’t have an explicit “heresy” section anymore.
Lots of other good stuff on his site, though. I enjoyed “Returning to Creativity in Karate” (design your own kata – that’d be a shock to Shotokan!), “The Courage to Allow Others to Quit” (right on), “There is no standard” (rank testing is highly subjective), and “Ranks: the Kudzu of Karate” (Japanese culture drives Shotokan’s love of conforming hierarchy).]
It doesn't exist anymore. Unfortunately. Because I got a lot of inspiration and support from Rob Redmond's "heresy" essays. He expressed what I was feeling about Shotokan, but at the time wasn't able to put into words so clearly. Redmond said:
Did you know that most people who take a martial art think that the style that they study is the best one ever invented? Of course you did. If you are reading these documents, then you are probably studying Shotokan karate. You have probably heard many people make fun of Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, and Ninja Training. You've probably also encountered people from those arts that roll their eyes when you say something good about Shotokan.
So Ninja training is silly. I agree. But so is Shotokan training. Much of what we do is not applicable in the street anymore than what most martial arts teach. It is rigid, structured, and obsessed with good form. We'll teach it to anyone, even people too small and weak to ever be able to fight. We do lots of things which are inconsistent, nonsensical, and downright silly like a Ninja school. You should be aware of what these things are.
…If you can't find fault with Shotokan, then you haven't given it much thought. In fact, to me, it is axiomatic that if someone is a true expert at something, they will have many complaints and criticisms of the way things are in their field of expertise.
The more I learn about Shotokan, the less I like it. Every year that passes helps me to find new things that I am disappointed in. The more I progress, the more limitations of Shotokan become apparent to me. If you cannot see the inherent weaknesses and holes in whatever you are studying, you don't know much about it.
The main thing that turned me off about Shotokan was its rigidity – both physically and philosophically.
Tai Chi recognizes that everything is a blend of yin and yang, softness and hardness, yielding and strength. By contrast, traditional karate is way over-balanced on the yang side. Blocks, punches, and kicks are bone-crushingly powerful.
But power is just one aspect of fighting. It can be easily deflected or avoided, as was evident at every one of the Shotokan tournaments that I attended and took part in. Traditional karate is big on the idea of a single "killing blow." However, highly skilled Shotokan black belts could hardly ever demonstrate it in practice. So what good is an ideal that almost never manifests in reality?
[Update: Along these lines, I came across this right-on couple of paragraphs while browsing through Redmond’s current web site:
Meanwhile, someone who is relatively unskilled and nothing like an actual fighter, such as myself, can drape himself in these Japanese credentials on the walls and around his waist which allow him the self-delusion that he is in fact a real fighter - because someone else says so. Even though reality shows us that real fighters are men in incredible physical condition with bulging muscles, relatively aggressive dispositions, and cruel life histories, the delusion is so desired that the Japanese characters on the wall coupled with a little marketing about the effectiveness of Karate training leaves some of us believing that we have become professional assassins.
I believe that in reality we could put a case of beer in six big marines and push them in through the front door of any Karate headquarters in Tokyo and they would clean it out. While I don’t wish to see anyone injured, I think it would do wonders to break the nearly hypnotic belief that some have about their own fighting skills and the value of their pretty certificates hanging on their walls for some of the big names in Shotokan to finally come out of hiding and participate in some of the many open events that are held around the world and receive the solid defeats that they no doubt are aware they would be handed were they to dare to compete outside their own association’s events.]
After I became a Shotokan brown belt my rank advancement came to a halt. I kept testing to go to the next brown belt level (you have to get to the third before trying for a black belt). I kept being told that my sparring (fighting) skills were better than my kata (form) skills.
OK. Granted. But some of the criticisms of my basic Shotokan expertise were off-base – a product of looking at students through an assembly line, one-size-fits-all mentality. After failing a rank test I heard, "Your shoulders were too high; that's a sign of tension." A photo taken at the exam even was given to me as proof.
I went home, took my shirt off, got into the stance that I was in when the photo was taken, and looked at my shoulders in a mirror. Yes, they looked just like they were at the exam. I tried to relax them further. I couldn't. They were relaxed. I've got broad shoulders. My shoulders look different from most other guys' shoulders.
You'd think that an advanced Shotokan black belt, like all of the examiners were, would be able to take into account an individual difference like that. However, Shotokan isn't big on individuality. If you're a second degree black belt, then maybe, just maybe, you'll be allowed to tweak a move in a kata to better suit you.
Until then, though, it's the Shotokan way or the highway. Rob Redmond again:
You go to your instructor and tell him that you are no longer making progress, and that you are very frustrated. Your instructor will appear sympathetic, and to fill his piggy bank, he will recommend that you train even more. "You need more training." Hell, you should train until his corvette is paid for.
This bad advice also comes disguised as "Don't think, just do." Or how about, "Reading about it is one thing, doing it is another." Over the last century, a cult of anti-intelligence has swept the martial arts.
The last year of my Shotokan training I entered several tournaments. I was over 50 and a mere brown belt. But I'd go out and bang around in the freestyle kumite (sparring) with black belts, some much younger than me. I beat a twenty-something brown belt who was about to test for his black belt. I took a third-degree black belt (an instructor, no less) into an overtime period before finally losing a kumite match by half a point.
In the kata (form) competition, my Bassai Dai performance got a score equal to that earned by several black belts. So I was feeling pretty good about my advancement chances going into the next testing, where I hoped to finally make it to the second of the three brown belt levels.
Everything felt good during the testing. My basic kicks and punches were on. So was my semi-free sparring. Ditto, my kata. I didn't want the testing to end, I was enjoying myself so much. Then came time to stand at Shotokan attention and get feedback from the lead examiner.
He ripped me up one side and down the other. Per usual. Up to that point I'd cringe when I got negative comments at an exam. "Your shoulders are too high, your timing is off, blah, blah, blah." This time I calmly looked the examiner in the eye. I heard what he was saying, but it was like he was talking about someone else.
I knew what I was capable of doing with my karate skills. I knew that I was making good progress. The only problem was, what I was learning wasn't what Shotokan karate valued. It was something else.
Standing there, I didn't know that there was a more flexible mixed martial arts style that could take this "something else" and build on it. Shotokan was all that I knew, the only style that I'd ever trained in. But I came to learn that the world of martial arts is much larger than the territory Shotokan is comfortable exploring.
I read Rob Redmond and journeyed away from traditional karate, a decision I've never regretted.
The axiom should therefore be reprinted with a different line of text. Karate training that requires a lifetime is bad karate training. For every student, there is a time when training ends. For people who make their entire world revolve around a karate dojo, that time is death.
For everyone else who simply wishes to learn to take a different perspective on themselves, that time could be after six months or ten years, but the time eventually comes. Know when it has come, and have the courage to recognize it and do the right thing by yourself.