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Old school and modern karate can coexist to become a Karate budo

This video is from a television series, The Ultimate Karate, that I wrote and co-hosted in 1994. This is the approach to goshin jutsu that I have always taught in my dojos since I started practicing Karate in 1971.

Karate, which is called "old school", was not only oriented towards striking techniques. For example, in the katas, in addition to strikes, there are sweeps, throws, chokes, joint locks, projection, etc. In the old school, katas were taught as an aide-memoire of strategies, tactics and self-defense techniques. If you were trusted, you were given the keys to these more or less esoteric techniques. If not, you were made to practice the movements only at the exoteric level and eventually you were given some keys to decode these movements.

Efficiency versus popularity

The objective of the "old school" was self-defence, efficiency, realism and learning a discipline (a way) to surpass oneself, to achieve. Being fit was only a side-effect and particularly oriented to better efficiency. There was no marketing method, because the aim was not to make one's school bigger or to have a trophy wall, but to share the love of art. Of course, in the old school, kicking was not as developed as today. The reason is quite simple, it was not necessary to defend yourself well. You only have to watch on YouTube how some boxers can eliminate 3-4 opponents with only two or three punching techniques.

The dilution of Karate

The suppression of so-called "dangerous" techniques has been initiated by the "new school of Karate" oriented towards the sport aspect. Several masters and instructors managed to navigate between the two, other disciples rather decided to leave their instructors to concentrate only on the sporting dimension. They have fashioned a "Sport Karate" where the main objective is to be fit, and the techniques are more oriented towards the rules of sport competition. Yes, many will promote the self-defence aspect to attract a target clientele, but the training is not very oriented towards it and the techniques lack realism. For those who were not interested in competition, they were sold the "fitness" aspect. For young people, they were sold the sport aspect and the promise of an Olympic sport. This is a selling point for growing a school.

Sports competition as a marketing tool

The sport aspect was gradually transformed into a marketing tool. Fighting and katas have become competition tools. So why do we need all these techniques that are not used in competition? Why explain that in katas there are bunkai when this is of no importance in competitions? The result is that fights and katas are practiced much more from the point of view of aesthetics than realism. There are even some styles of sport karate where the participants invent their katas and their movements are more inspired by Hollywood and Cirque du Soleil movies than by real karate.

Some might say to me, "Gaëtan, should we eliminate the sport competition and go back to the old traditional karate?" No, not at all. Sporting competition also has its advantages for the 10 or 20% who are able to participate. But it is only a tiny part of what Karate Budo is. I paraphrase my friend Shihan Dmitry Alekhnovich, "Competition is like the marketing part of a big factory. We need it, but it is only one small department among others. Not everyone can work only in this department.

The problem is not the competition, it is those who believe that everything else, including the notion of self-defence and the practice of bunkai in kata, has become obsolete and no longer worth teaching. And those who do not participate in competitions at all, but who still teach a modern karate oriented only on the sport aspect in the gym.

Take a step back to be able to move forward

Shihan Dmitry, recently told me that many of the leaders of our federation also share this perspective and they are taking a step to teach a much more complete karate budo again. He quoted another friend of mine, Shihan Eddy Gabathuler, who told him that with this approach we are in a way taking a step backwards. I liked that metaphor.

Yes, I believe that this step backwards is essential for us to take several steps forward. Because going back to the roots of our past can only make us stronger. How many times do you hear masters telling you to go back to the basics?

The old and the new school can coexist perfectly

Fortunately, I realise that there are a lot of people who think the same way I do. I don't have any merit, because I started in the old school and I knew the new school (I have been practising karate for more than 50 years). I always believed that the two could coexist. And I could see that it is possible when I worked for 5 years (4-5 days a week) as a doorman in a nightclub at night, while teaching Karate budo (5-6 days a week) and training for knockdowns during the day. I was able to use all the tools of karate other than strikes in real combat situations and follow the rules in knockdown championships (full contact without protections).

A return to the basics

I feel that there is a worldwide movement happening where bunkai and goshin jutsu is being taught and promulgated more and more. Just as Sosai Masutatsu Oyama wanted a few years before his death.

I believe that Karate is composed of physical conditioning exercises, Kihon, ido geiko, renraku, kata, kumite and goshin jutsu. And it is a lifestyle and a way of awakening our inner warrior that helps us to get through the tough trials and obstacles that life will bring. It is a form of meditation in action that helps us develop mindfulness and give meaning to our lives. It helps us to align our body-mind in our relational field. It is an art that we can practice until the age of 80 and more (if it is not practiced only as a sport where often athletes abandon it because of too many injuries). Karate teaches respect, discipline, confidence, self-control and self-improvement. Few disciplines or sports that can be practiced over a period of 70 years or more can give you all these benefits. This is why I believe in Budo and all-round Karate.

I sincerely believe that we can combine the old and new school in a harmonious way, provided that we perceive Karate as a long-term discipline and not as a quick way to achieve something, so dear to our society of consumerism and instant celebrity.

The danger of fundamentalism and consumerism in Karate

Here we find the famous struggle between the two ideologies of fundamentalism and consumerism. The first concept has as its principle not to touch anything of the tradition and to believe blindly in what is written in the book, without modifying a single iota. At the risk of being excommunicated or expelled from the organisation.

The second concept is that we have to learn a lot in a short period of time, without really mastering anything. We see this mentality when a person wants to get a black belt quickly to move on. Some sport karate styles will market themselves by guaranteeing a black belt after a few years. As if a belt had something important in the mastery of Karate.

Both schools of thought have their flaws, and it is in the middle ground that we can find creative solutions. I will come back to this fascinating subject of fundamentalism versus consumerism that our modern life has transposed into karate and why the middle way is much more creative and generative.

Gaëtan Sauvé

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