Traditional Shotokan: What is traditional about it?

By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Many masters, associations, and Karateka claim to practice traditional Shotokan. They usually do this in order to distinguish their Karate from what is called Sports Karate. A precise definition what traditional Shotokan Karate exactly means is mostly not give. The questioner is left in the dark about the “tradition” that makes Shotokan traditional most of the time. If one keeps asking what traditional Shotokan is many respondents have a tendency to use a rhetorical loophole. According to their opinion, traditional Shotokan is exactly all that, what Sports Karate is not. In other words: It is the exact opposite.

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For some questioners such an answer might be sufficient because the have a vague understanding what distinguishes both types of Karate. Or they do not care much about the differences. They just want to practice.†

Definition of Traditional Shotokan?

For the community of practitioners and the art of Shotokan itself, however, a definition ex negativo is not sufficient at all. A clear understanding about the traits of Shotokan, a definition ex positivo, is necessary. Only then we will know how to

  • use and to work it out to its full potential,
  • spread its values,
  • create a common identity among practitioners,
  • attract new students,
  • show what is has to offer in comparison to other martial arts,
  • and to develop it further.

Unfortunately, the labels “tradition” and “traditional” do not help to illuminate and to  describe what Shotokan is about. Why is that? If we define the term tradition we see that almost everything can become a tradition. As the people in the Rhineland, which is the region where I life today, use to say: If you do something three times, it has become a tradition. A more precise definition can be found in dictionaries. According to Merriam Webster, a tradition is defined as:

“an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)”

Olympic Games: Sport as A Tradition

If we take this definition serious it has huge consequences whether we should call Shotokan “traditional”. Because sports can be and is already a “inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior”. For instance, the first ancient Olympic Games were conducted 800 before Christ. Back then, they were religious rituals with strict rules and ceremonial elements. According to the definition, they were traditions.

The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.
The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.

The same goes for the International Olympic Games of the modern age. They date back to 1896. With more than 100 years of history one has to conclude that they have become a worldwide social custom. Even modern Sports Karate is already a tradition. The roots of the World Karate Federation date back to the 1960´s. Thus, it is only 30 years younger than Shotokan itself. In 2020, the WKF will introduce Karate to the Olympic Games. Sports Karate will then become a part of a more than 2.800 year old tradition of organized sports competition.

Traditional Shotokan?

Shotokan Karate, on the other hand, was developed by Gichin Funakoshi in the 1920´s and 1930´s. And he did not develop it from scratch. He recombined Okinawa Karate styles and enriched them with some new ideas. But Karate itself is much older and has its roots in China. If we were consequent we must say that Okinawa Karate is more traditional than “traditional” Shotokan Karate. †

Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.
Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.

To label Shotokan as traditional does not hold water. Because we must also understand that the term tradition is not a good quality indicator. A tradition might be outdated, inefficient, and harmful. Thus, we cannot conclude that every tradition is always good. Sometimes it is better to leave a bad tradition behind and develop something new. From this point of view, it is neither logically meaningful nor practically useful to say Shotokan is a traditional art.

Karate Do is the Better Term

But what is the alternative? We have already a better term at hand. It is Karate Do. Because Karate Do means a way of life and a social philosophy. Principles guide Shotokan Karate Do.  The most famous among them is the Dojo-kun. But there are even more. For instance, the 20 Precepts of Karate by Gichin Funakoshi. The first precepts states:

“Karate begins and ends with courtesy.”

One can easily agree that this precept is timeless. It is neither traditional nor modern. It has been and will always be valid. This orientation on timeless values and guiding principles is the unique feature. At the center of the label of Shotokan should, therefore, stay that it is a paradigm to make the world a better place – it is Karate Do.

Note: I have to thank Michael Ehrenreich and Thomas Prediger for the inspiration to this article.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for the superb article. This is more likely I would answer the question about traditional karate. Michael and Thomas are fine karatekas and rolemodels for the younger generation.

  2. It is known that Funakoshi Gichin was the “father of modern karate” and this leads us to a “modernization”. However, I understand that the word “traditional” is related to the medium and not to the purpose it is proposed.
    JLemos

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