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Karate - is it really a martial art?

Posted Sep 14 2009 9:56am

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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