Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Karate - is it really a martial art?

I don't know about you but whenever I am thinking about any of the different fighting forms, be it karate, jujitsu, kung fu, kendo or anything else I tend to lump them altogether under the generic title of 'martial arts'. But is it right to do so? When I wrote my last post about the origins of shukokai I learnt that karate was developed by bureaucrats in the Shuri castle - not exactly martial then? This got me thinking a bit more about what it means to be a martial art and whether karate is in fact one.

To try and get to the bottom of this we need to consider the precise meanings of the words 'martial' and 'art'. The word 'martial' is clearly a reference to things of a military nature. The Oxford English Dictionary defines martial as 'appropriate to warfare' and 'warlike'. We use the term martial law to describe a military government. The Japanese translation of the word martial best approximates to the word bu, a familiar prefix in martial arts terminology. We are familiar with the term budo (martial ways), bushido (way of the bushi) and bujutsu (a fighting school of the samuri). Specifically though the prefix bu only refers to Japanese fighting techniques. So if you study any Chinese, Korean or European fighting forms you can't technically refer to them as 'martial', at least not in the Japanese sense of the word.

So to sum up the martial bit - your fighting form has to be of Japanese origin and developed for warfare by military establishments. That puts karate out of the picture as being 'martial'. It was developed in Okinawa by civilians to protect themselves against the military - the Samuri.

Is karate an 'art'? Remember we are looking at Japanese definitions of words. The word art in Japanese is generally translated to jutsu, though the word jutsu usually refers to skills or techniques. This definition does not allows us to include the wider philosophical components of learning a fighting form. The Japanese have another word to describe fighting forms that also include a deeper spiritual or philosophical side to them, they use the word 'do', which translates as the Way. I have often seen karate described as karate-do and indeed from my own experience I have come to realise that karate is more than merely a fighting form. I established in my last post that Shukokai means 'The way for all'.

So to conclude - is karate a martial art? Using the above definitions of 'martial' and 'art' karate clearly is neither. It is not martial because it is civilian and not Japanese in origin. It is not an art because it is more than just a collection of fighting skills and techniques - it is a Way or a Do.

Is the fighting form that you follow really a martial art? I'll leave you to work it out - good luck if you do MMA!

Reference: Traditions by Dave Lowry.

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Littlefair said...

Oops- I'm lost. I don't understand why a martial art *has* to be Japanese. Bu is the Japanese word pertaining to martial in English.

Martial means warlike. The Japanese translation of this is bu and this term (bu) can only be applied to Japanese arts. But that doesn't mean we can't use martial (warlike/pertaining to warcraft) for other arts does it? (My head hurts)


Littlefair said...

PS Do you have Nakayama's 'Dynamic Karate'. It's FANTASTIC.


Sue C said...

I think this may be a case of 'lost in translation'. In Dave Lowry's book he seems pretty adamant that from a Japanese point of view to be 'bu' is to be a Japanese fighting form of military origin and any form not originating in Japan, by definition cannot be 'bu'. If it cannot be 'bu' then it cannot be martial but hey this is getting stuck on semantics! Clearly bu and martial are not literal translations. The main point though was that if a fighting form is not of military origin, such as karate, it is not technically a martial art but that's not to say it is not a combat art (or 'do')

Littlefair said...


By the way I was reading a book at the library the other day (wish I'd borrowed it now!) which said something like people who do Shukokai tend to be nimble but powerful and like to intellectualise!

So there. said...

3 years late to this conversation but hey, I'll weigh in!

I like Mr. Lowry's work quite a bit. He is knowledgeable and always proves to be a wealth of information and wisdom on the esoteric arts.

I do, however, find him to be very dogmatic in his thinking (and if I really want to be honest, a bit elitist). But I suppose one could reasonably except this of a man who has embraced another age and another culture.

Anyhow, I find it to be very limiting to put forth that only those techniques and styles of mainland Japan could be described what they do with "Bu" (mind you, I don't suggest that you are, in fact, saying this). How does one characterize what is Japanese anyhow? During the warring states period, there were many groups/tribes/kingdoms/sects that considered themselves independent from the Yamato people. Would that make arts from those people any less "Bu" in the strict only-Japanese-techniques sense?


Sue C said...

Hi Brett, it's never to late to join in the discussion on one of my blog posts - I'll still reply :-)

My understanding of karate has grown quite a lot since I wrote this post so I wouldn't now be so pedantic about the word bu (though clearly David Lowry is!)

However I would still maintain that karate does not have a martial origin and is a combination of art (jutsu) and a Way (do). Never the less, in casual conversation I would still refer to karate as a martial art because it's just simpler that way!


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