Feature Article of the Quarter

THE AMERICANIZATION OF KARATE: The Decline of Purpose / Respect

By: C. Bruce Heilman (IKKF President)

Something has been bothering me for some time, but I did not seem to be able to put it into words until recently. What has concerned me is the change I have witnessed in the martial arts over the last couple of decades and its impact, I fear upon the future of the arts.

No one can dispute that Americans have played an important role in the propagation and popularization of the traditional arts in the recent past and will continue to have a strong influence on the future. However, this role has had both its positive and negative aspects.

Our American Culture is a unique one - one which is strongly based on equality with everyone having a chance to succeed in life and business. Ours is a culture based upon democracy and freedom of choice. It is one which prides itself by not being bound by tradition and hierarchy. We embrace anything "new" as being better and we seem to be fertile ground for the latest fad. All of this has been our strength and at the same time the source of our weakness.

When the oriental martial arts were initially introduced to the States in the late 1940 to the early 1960's, the influence of the Japanese culture was clearly evident. In the late 1960's to early 1970's we saw a "backlash" developing in the States with a movement away from "traditional" and the emergence of "American Karate" based upon an eclectic structure. The traditional arts were viewed at this time as not being responsive to modern needs and lacking practical focus. This was also the time of the rise of the open tournament and the popularity of sport focused karate. Also emerging during this time were a number of "American Organizations", both style specific and multi-style based, which eventually gave birth to a number of "American Styles".

With the passage of time, the emphasis has again swung back to renewed interest in the traditional arts. Now one even see the "Eclectic" and "Americanized" styles now trying to clock themselves in the titles and ceremonies of the traditional styles - I guess in an attempt to give an illusion of "creditability" to themselves. One such latest endeavor is the creation of a "Teachers Certification Program" by a major Martial Arts Business Association. While the concept is a worthy one, the problem with its implementation IMHO is that it seems to focus on the individuals business, exercise, marketing and social skills. While it is not disputed that many traditional martial artists can stand improvement in these areas, this latest gimmick seems to be a poor attempt to mimic a "traditional arts Teacher License - Renshi Title" without addressing the individuals martial arts teaching skills. Now rather than putting in 10 years or more of training in a style before being eligible for a "Teachers License", now one now attend one seminar, buy a book, take a multiple-choice test and pay a couple hundred dollars, and receive ones "Teachers Certification". Just another example of the continued "watering down" or "loss of purpose" of the arts in the States.

Even within many of the "traditional styles" I have seen the effect of Americanization - that is the decline of respect. Here it seems that our cultures view of "equal access for all" has downplayed the value of the student teacher relationship. The etiquette that has typified the arts for many generations is seen less and less frequently these days, as formality has given way to a new level of informality and "false (unearned) friendship". While I have never been an advocate of the strict social positioning/interaction of the Japanese culture, I also do not think that having students refer to their Instructors by their "first names" (as an example) does anyone any good in the long run. For my part, I could never imagine addressing either of my past teachers as "Seikichi" or "Robert" - for Seikichi Odo or Robert Trias respectively.

I submit to you, my fellow martial arts teachers that it is in the best interest of the future of our arts, to maintain a basic level of formality in our dealings with students, our fellow Yudansha, etc.

In our own organization, the IKKF, we have tried to maintain an appropriate balance of formality without being restrictive. A moderately formal student/teacher relationship based on respect and sharing of knowledge is to the benefit of all. Just as important for the future is the maintenance of the "hierarchy" in the traditional arts, as I believe that the current generation of Teachers and Senior Teachers will through their professionalism, or lack thereof, have a significant influence on how our "traditional arts" will be passed on to the future generations. In short, if we build on our strengths while respecting the past, the future for the traditional arts will be bright.

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