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  • D. Branchaud

What are 'Traditional' Martial Arts?

Often, on websites and facebook postings, schools use the word 'traditional' to describe their karate, etc... But what does this mean?


Does this mean that the school practices an older, established art? Maybe, but this cannot be true in many cases as oftentimes the art they teach doesn't, and never did, exist in Japan. Can it be traditional?


Tradition implies that something is long-established. But how long? Many martial arts have been around for generations. Can a recently created style be traditional? Clearly, 'traditional' does not mean 'historical'.


There is also the issue of the changeability of martial arts practices. Change can be good, bad or indifferent. Historically martial arts have always changed as times and teachers see fit. Some have even been lost for good for failing to adapt. There are gradients of change. Many times I have observed schools claiming to teach traditional such-and-such style of karate, yet, having personal experience with that style on Okinawa, it is clear that the American school is teaching a watered-down or confused version. Of course it is up to the teacher to teach any way they want. The unfortunate thing is that students may not know that what they are learning isn't accurate.

I use words like traditional, authentic, historical to describe what I teach. It is important for me to accurately demonstrate the styles, schools and teachers I represent. That does not mean that I teach exactly as I was taught. It isn't possible. I can't replicate my experiences on Okinawa, my setbacks, my challenges, etc... And my teachers adapted their teaching to my circumstances- they sometimes changed. So, I don't teach exactly as my teachers did, but I try to produce results in my students that are representative of the arts passed down through me. To me, it is important that my students reflect the teachings of my teachers.


Lastly, since virtually all martial arts, even MMA, have been influenced by Asian martial arts, is it fair to claim that all martial arts are traditional and any martial arts can claim a lineage to Japan or Okinawa? I believe this is a bit of a stretch.


I am guessing that the term 'traditional' suggests little more than the fact that members of a traditional school wear uniforms, line up in rows, bow, perhaps they do some type of kata (historical or recently created) and receive rank/belts. I think that you cannot safely assume any more than that when you hear the words 'traditional karate'.



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