The House of Nakayama
“Shotokan” literally translated means “house of Shoto” (Shoto being the pen-name of Gichin Funakoshi). Karate practiced by followers of Gichin Funakoshi is very much the way of life Master Funakoshi was hoping for, with little emphasis placed on competition as he did not feel it was in the spirit of karate, but later allowed some minimal amount of competition to avoid inter-dojo fights and to open Shotokan karate to a larger audience. Instead, more time is spent on being good human beings who push their own personal limits. This is justification for why the passing criteria for a belt level is flexible to some degree, as individual growth is variable and so cannot be pigeon-holed into a rigid predefined box of grading criteria.
Karate as we (and I’m speaking to Shotokan practitioners here) know it wasn’t always called “Shotokan”. It was simply karate, and even farther back, te.
But isn’t there now a huge component of Shotokan karate that deals with competing? While “Good Will” tournaments are held as special trainings, international competitions such as the Shoto Cup are strictly about competing. These competitions have the side effect of promoting the art Funakoshi established, bu in the end rules are defined and specific criteria are observed for awarding medals and placement. Competitors travel from around the world to demonstrate their ability and take home medals, not to take part in a special class. This is undeniably and inextricably a sport. That’s not to say that Shotokan karate is a sport and anyone practicing it is attempting to be a world class athlete, but where did this spirit of sport come from? The first major proponent of sport within Shotokan karate was Master Masatoshi Nakayama.
Invision a Shotokan variant whereby there is little or no kata practice. You go to class, spend 10 minutes warming up, 20 minutes running basics and sparring drills and the rest of the time sparring, practicing competition style kumite in a legal size ring, with actual judging and spectators watching between their own bouts. You learn to judge, to referee, to condition your body in a way that helps your sparring. Wrist rotation and hip vibration are taught practically by hitting stuff (not just fresh air). All techniques are evaluated and explained in somewhat scientific terms rather than explained away as “this is how the masters have always taught us to do it”.
This is how many clubs and classes are run. Students of these clubs do lots of basics and even more kumite. Competition-style kumite. They attend a tournament every couple months and have miniature tournaments in their own clubs. This is not a kata-oriented organization or based on perfection of character.
Funakoshi brought Shotokan to mainland Japan. Nakayama pushed for formalization of the art into sport events in an effort to rally interest in Shotokan karate. Less than a year after Master Funakoshi’s death, the JKA held its first All-Japan Tournament, spear-headed by Nakayama. Much of what is seen as sport karate by the global audience is the sport as defined by Nakayama. If karate is added to the Olympics and gains any viewership, it will be Nakayama-kan karate they will be viewing, won’t it?
If we changed our art’s name to reflect the dominant figure in its creation, as has often been done when groups splinter from a larger organization, would we call it Nakayamakan Karate? It would seem to me that anyone who joins Shotokan karate for the sole purpose of competition is following a set of rules, principles and teachings as added to 1950’s Shotokan karate by Masatoshi Nakayama. Some argue you can train kihon and kumite exclusively, and never be “bothered” to learn kata. If that is the case, Shotokan karateka would be more effective creating an organization which removes eliminates kata practice.
And why not? There are hundreds of karate organizations that take their name from their “founder” anyways. Most of these are out to make a buck, which Shotokan characteristically is not, but if its a style of karate founded on sparring and attending tournaments and competitions, there is no way this organization would not be bringing in large plumes of cash.
Is it Doable?
Your damn right it is. There are so many examples of martial arts that don’t aim for the art to be a life style choice and work solely for the purpose of engaging others in competition. These are sports. Have you spoken to many taekwondo students who describe what they do as a way of life? No. They go to class to learn how to kick. There’s nothing wrong with this and there’s nothing wrong with making it a way of life. My point is that it can be successfully separated into a Shotokan meant for competing and one meant for philosophical development, if these are the goals.
What we learn here in NS is, for the most part, Shotokan karate. There is some sparring, but nothing intense. That has partly to do with the members of the club. Only a small fraction of them want to compete. You can see this by looking at the competitor turn out at local/provincial tournaments. On the other hand, what they learn in Quebec and Alberta is about 80% kumite and 20% everything else, so they are learning Nakayama’s teachings! I’ve spoken to several students of JKA and ISKF clubs from these provinces and they all say the same thing, that almost every class is sparring.
So Shotokan karate or Nakayamakan karate? If you were to sign up all over again, which would you choose? Is this the same as the difference between ISKF and JKA?