Is Traditional Karate Dead?

I’ve been studying karate for over thirty years (yes, I know that I mention that a lot) and the benefits of the martial arts on my health, my Diabetes and my overall mental well-being can’t be over-stated. My reasons for starting karate have changed and/or altered throughout the decades and there have even been periods when I’ve walked away from it for a while, even though no genuine martial artist can ever truly quit; they’ll always maintain it or come back to it in some way, shape or form.

Martial arts hit the big screens in the mid-1950’s, although what they were showing on screen could hardly be called martial arts, in any true sense of the term. In the 1970’s, martial arts blew up the big screen with Enter The Dragon, Bruce Lee’s hit movie where he infiltrates an island tournament held by a monk turned criminal drug lord. Since then, people have been fascinated and infatuated by the presence of martial arts and will often whistle through their teeth if you tell them that you study it.

The 1980’s showed a huge surge of television shows that focused on the martial arts. One of my favourites was The Master, a show about an old ninja master taking on a younger student while they search for his missing daughter. It only aired for one season, but it was timeless (plus, I was 6-years old at the time so it all looked great!). By the time the late 1990’s and early 2000’s rolled around, there was a noticeable lack of interest in the martial arts.

Unless you had already been doing it and were part of a dojo that had enough students and enough steam to host tournaments and events and keep itself going, a lot of schools (especially back in New Brunswick) saw serious lacks in attendance and students. Sensei’s dojo also felt the sting of this phenomenon, with our classes going from several dozen students per class to about a half dozen students before I moved away for work. It was disheartening to see, and it took a certain something away from the ambiance of the class. This has led me to ask the question: Is traditional karate dead?

I remember watching the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993; back when it was actually ABOUT the martial arts and not about pitting two ‘roid heads in biker shorts against one another. I got to enjoy watching a variety of realistic fights, as the original events involved individual martial arts styles, no gloves or protective equipment and most importantly, no rules. It saw matches the likes of a sumo wrestler against a savate fighter, kickboxing against karate and traditional boxing against Jiu Jitsu. It was exciting, it was bloody and it was traditional. Everyone had on their specific gi or uniform and held true to their style.

These days, so-called MMA, or mixed martial arts has taken over, and people have become less and less enthused about traditional forms of fighting such as karate. It seems the growing trend is geared towards trying to discredit traditional martial arts, filming unqualified instructors and turning one’s preference on the more streamlined punch/kick training such as the MMA. People enjoy seeing some of the fancy, high-flying antics shown on the big screen, but very few people are interested in the actual training or disciplined required to learn the actual art.

Styles such as Tae Kwon Do have managed to ease their way through these troubled waters. But in many cases, this is because their style contains such dynamic techniques as to keep the students’ focus and attention, as well as include things like board breaking, flips and intricate spin kicks, which although look nice, hold no practical application in an actually fight unless your opponent has ABSOLUTELY no fighting skills whatsoever. It may look impressive to have someone hold a board and have you spin twice through the air before kicking through it. But explain to me in what world anyone will sit still long enough for you to execute that overly complicated maneuveur?

The MMA’s end goal more closely resembles that of traditional boxing, where two opponents square off and beat the living shit out of each other until one of them submits or gets knocked out. I know I harp on MMA quite a bit in my posts. This is mostly because I’ve seen the decline in its development from a sharing of various martial arts to the barbaric bloodfest they’ve turned it into. MMA’s goal is literally to get the opponent on the ground and keep pounding on them until they tap or pass out. Not exactly something that can be referred to as an “art,” which makes sense since a singular student can’t “mix” martial arts when training.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not focusing on these two sports, I’m simply using them as an example of how society has lost its infatuation with the martial arts. In fact, one of the toughest opponents I’ve ever squared off against was a Tae Kwon Do black belt (looking at you, Jesse!) And there’s no arguing that training in the MMA is a ridiculously tough workout regiment and taxes the body. No question. But the prospect of convincing students to move slowly and smoothly, doing forms for an hour at a time is much more difficult when faced against spin kicks, board breaking and the television glam of MMA.

One of the true problems may also be the fact that the modernization of society has taken away the mystery. Back in Bruce Lee’s day, the martial arts was exotic and mystical; a means of fighting not seen by most people and it was something to be sought out. Modern times and the advent of high-speed internet has taken away that aspect, as everyone has the world’s information at their fingertips. Some of the mystery and mysticism is gone.

Karate is still a highly effective and potent fighting art. I should know, I’ve used it in both personal and professional settings to protect myself and others. And I can speak from experience when I say that it is every karate practitioner’s dream to find a student who will commit to the art so that it may be passed down to the next generation. I was that person for Sensei. His art lives within me and is carried in everything I do. I still hope to find such a student.

Traditional karate may not be dead, but its spark of life is certainly dwindling. In the modern, fast-paced world where everyone expects immediate gratification, spending a decade or longer trying to reach a black belt doesn’t appeal to the younger generation when you can walk into the neighbouring McDojo and get your black belt in two years. You won’t be able to fight worth a damn and God help you, should you ever have to protect yourself or someone else, but good for you! Hopefully someday, the appreciation that traditional martial arts held will come full circle and once again be prominent. ☯

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I am a practitioner of the martial arts and student of the Buddhist faith. I have been a Type 1 Diabetic since I was 4 years old and have been fighting the uphill battle it includes ever since. I enjoy fitness and health and looking for new ways to improve both, as well as examining the many questions of life. Although I have no formal medical training, I have amassed a wealth of knowledge regarding health, Diabetes, martial arts as well as Buddhism and philosophy. My goal is to share this information with the world, and perhaps provide some sarcastic humour along the way. Welcome!

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