Lessons on Terminology and History

with Dan Bernardo, Sabom

Listen, I grew up in the 80's and 90's martial arts culture. I have been called Daniel San more than you can possibly imagine. I've done more demo's to the Mortal Kombat soundtrack than even I can remember.

I started my martial arts journey when I was 10 at a tiny school in Belle Vernon, PA called Chon's Karate. I remember starting in the kids class, taught by Master Chon's daughter. I also remember there being quite a lot of Adults in the other classes.

I was always the kid who paid more attention to what the adults were doing than the kids. I spent most of my life surrounding myself with adults, whether martial artists, priests, monks, teachers, etc. So, I guess I never really saw the martial arts as something that only kids did, simply because I saw mostly adults doing it.

I didn't stay at Chon's long, and as I experienced different schools, grew older, and began teaching; I started to notice the kids more... and also... the different standards for the kids. I would ask myself, were the kids always this bad when I was younger? Was I this bad? Even still, Karate was something these kids were beginning to learn, and learn slowly because they weren't adults. And REAL karate was for the adults.

Growing up in this "post karate kid" age, I had heard so many stories of "back in the day" when Karate was too difficult and dangerous for kids.

But, I started as a kid.

Even still, with the schools being predominately kid oriented, Karate was still a hardcore civilian combat system that we were simplifying for the kids to grow into. Karate was still for adults.

Before the 1900's, Karate was more of a holistic practice. Incorporating joint locks, throws, grappling, kicking, punching, limb destructions, etc... It required serious body conditioning, and resistance training to make sure you were a competent fighter.

After the 1900's we start to see more specialization in the styles as sport and physical education oriented classes took priority. The forerunner of this movement was Anko Itosu, you probably know him as the guy who created the Pinan (also pronounced Heian[JP] or Pyongahn[KR]) forms. In October 1908, Itosu wrote a letter to the Minister of Education entitled, "Ten Precepts (Tode Jukun) of Karate". His goal was to capitalize on the new Japanese public school system mandaded in Okinawa by the Japanese government to bring Okinawan Tode (Karate) to the public, and make it a worthy asset to the Japanese.

The letter reads:

Ten Precepts of Karate

Karate is not of Confucian or Buddhist origin. Shorin and Shorei schools were originally introduced from China into Okinawa. Each of the two styles has its strength, thus both should be retained.
  1. Karate practice should be used as a means of self-defense and in order to protect one's parents and loved ones. It should be used to improve your health and should not be used for your own selfish interests or to deliberately hurt someone.
  2. The purpose of Karate is to train the human body to become as hard as rock and as strong as iron (steel). To effectively develop the hands and feet to be used as spears or arrows, and to develop a strong spirit and brave heart through continuous practice. If Karate were introduced at the elementary school level, the children would be well prepared for the military in the future. Both the First Duke of Wellington and Napoleon I discussed the concept of "tomorrow's victory can come from today's playgrounds".
  3. Karate is not learned over a brief period of time. To understand Karate more fully, one should practice seriously everyday for at least three or four years.
  4. In Karate the hands and feet should be trained on the 'makiwara' by striking it about one or two hundred times. This can be achieved by dropping or relaxing (without tension) the shoulders. Open your lungs (inhale deeply) without raising the shoulders, take hold of your strength (hold your breath briefly), grip the ground with your feet and sink your intrinsic energy (Ki, Chi, Internal Life Force) to your lower abdomen (Tanden).
  5. Karate should be practiced with the proper stances executed by keeping the back straight, lowering the shoulders, allowing the strength to develop in the legs, positioning the feet firmly on the ground and delivering the Ki through the tanden, while keeping the upper and lower parts connected throughout the movement.
  6. Karate techniques should be practiced repeatedly over and over a great number of times. The correct explanation (Bunkai) of the techniques should be learned and then properly applied to the given circumstances.
  7. Karate practitioners should decide whether the emphasis is on purely physical fitness training or only the practical use of the body.
  8. Karate should be practiced with great intensity and the concept of always being prepared to defend your self, as if on the field of battle.
  9. Karate should be practiced correctly and to develop the proper strength of technique. Do not over exert your self or over do it.
  10. Those who have previously mastered Karate have lived to an old age. This was achieved because Karate helps in the development of muscles and bones, helps the digestive organs, and improves the circulation of blood. Therefore, Karate should be introduced into the physical education classes and practiced from the elementary school level onwards.

Herein lies the beginning of "Karate for Kids".

But still, Itosu desired a PE karate system to develop strong young people, who could become even stronger adult Karateka. Karate was still something worthy for adults to study in terms of strong civilian combat.

The other week I had a student, an adult (I teach mostly adults), confide in me that when he tells people he practices karate they look at him funny because "Karate is for kids". WOW!

I blame the Karate Kid movies.

Honestly, I've spoken to far too many instructors who were around before that movie came out in 1984 who tell me afterwards, it was a flood of kids wanted to learn Karate.

Due to this popularity, especially here in the states, we got the "Karate for Kids" stuff.

And in effect, we went from "Karate"; to "Karate Kid"; to "Karate for Kids"; and finally to "Karate for only Kids"; in just 3 decades.

WHAT HAPPENED?? Is Karate really only for kids?

I believe aspects of martial arts is DEFINITELY for kids. And I enjoy teaching basics of martial fundamentals to kids. I love watching them learn balance, flexibility, coordination, focus, intensity, athleticism, acrobatics, etc...

But this is only a tiny part of martial arts. It just happens to be all they can really do at their age. As they grow older, the art must match them. Until finally as adults they should be in prime shape mentally and physically to undertake real Karate. That should always be our goal with teaching kids martial arts.

I see this happening in many schools around the world, specifically in Shaolin... but there are many schools that this isn't the case. As the kids get older, there isn't anything for them in their Karate curriculum. They move on to MMA, Boxing, Kickboxing, BJJ, etc... which is perfectly fine to be honest. I have nothing against these focuses. But it is a telling sign of the lack of real karate for adults being taught nowadays.

In conclusion, Karate is for EVERYONE. But like anything else we learn... it has to get more intense, more complicated, more holistic as the student grows. A 1st grader isn't learning calculus. Nor would we expect them to learn it. But basic addition means they are learning math. Similarly, a 1st grader isn't learning limb destructions, nor would we expect them to learn it. But basic stances and bio mechanics means they are learning Karate.

Karate is for EVERYONE!

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