An historic outline from the 1400s detailing the significant developments of the martial arts.
Updated: Jan 22, 2018
People have always been seeking methods to protect themselves, their family and possessions. The Martial Arts are as old as mankind, simply refined over years to deal with the current threat.
The history of western civilisation lead primarily to a weapons based systems of fighting and defence and most of the records up to the Middle Ages referred to weapons based combat.
The history of the development of martial arts in the east is less well documented. While the roots are believed to have developed through Indian to China and subsequently to the surrounding countries such as Korea and Japan, much of this is more legend that actual history, however by the 15th century we begin to get a clearer historic and political understanding of the beginnings of what we now identify as eastern martial arts.
This blog is my interpretation of the key factors which gave rise to the martial arts as practised in Western Europe and the USA today. Following my research into the history of Martial Arts since the 1400’s I believe that nearly all the majors changes that have taken place can be primarily be attributed to either social and cultural exclusion/inclusion.
These areas we will review include:
· The origin of Eastern martial arts.
· The unification of Japan and the effect of the Satsuma Clan.
· The Sho dynasty of Okinawa and the ‘Shuri Crucibe’.
· The USA – Mathew Perry through to W.W.2. and the spread of karate to the west.
· Western martial skills.
· Inclusion verses isolationism.
At the beginning of the period we are examining, two of the countries, China and the USA, (who would play a major role in the development and spread of the martial arts), were in diametrically opposed positions.
China, a culture and society established for over 2000 years was in its Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) dynasty, while North America had only just been ‘discovered’ and it would be nearly a century before any permanent settlement took place there.
Elsewhere, Europe was coming to the end of it feudal period and entering its ‘period of discovery' (1490-1664 A.D.), whilst Japan and Okinawa were still feudal states. Korea another player in the spread of modern martial arts had been unified following the Yi revolt under the Choson dynasty (1392-1910 A.D.) Korea like Okinawa was linked closely to China through trade and political tribute.
China, perhaps the most influential country in the development of eastern martial arts was originally unified in 221 BC under the Qin Dynasty. Its culture, forged over 1500 years had long established trade routes to North Africa and Europe through the transcontinental path known as the 'Silk Road'. Its influence over East Asia was immense and many countries paid tribute to it.
Numerous fighting techniques were developed through the continuous conflict that took place over countless generations. Many techniques were based on the imitation of fighting practises of animals. Of note was Fang Chi Niang and the White Crane system of Gang which influenced many of our current styles.
The continuous development of fighting styles was common in China. During the Song dynasty (960 -1278 A.D.), Shaolin Buddhist warrior monks, known for their development of Quan Fa gathered further martial skills from outside the temple resulting in the book The Essence of Five Fists, but the transfer of knowledge was reciprocal and Buddhist monks such as Da Zhi and Shao Yang travelled to China from Japan to study in the mid 1300’s.
However when Manchuria took over China forming the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) martial arts training was forbidden to prevent rebellion against the government. Shaolin monks practised in secret but their numbers dwindled from thousands to a few hundred.
It was not until the revolution of 1911 lead by Doctor Sun Yat-Sen that the study of Chinese martial arts were revisited. During the 1920s many books were published on the subject; however, this was a turbulent time in the region and the communist insurgence of 1927 lead to an intense battle in 1928 which saw the Shaolin Temple destroyed. The fires lasted 40 days and caused the loss of priceless books and records on martial arts history and techniques.
After W.W.2, China under communist rule and as part of the Cultural Revolution banned religion and Shaolin training and many martial arts masters were killed. The loss to the martial arts was significant, however by the 1980s China sort to promote itself on the world stage. Now, the Shaolin Temple (rebuilt) is a tourist destination and the martial art of Wushu is being pushed for entry in to the Olympics.
Korea prior to the Choson dynasty had been ‘unified’ a number of times before, notably in 668 A.D. under the Silla dynasty and in 936 A.D. by the Goryeo dynasty.
Before the Yi revolution the practice of martial arts had been widespread, early forms of Sumo spread between between Korea, Japan and the ancestors of the Moguls, in later times subak and taekkyeon were well developed hand and foot fighting skills. However, under the influence of Neo Confucianism and the Choson government’s suppression, the martial arts declined.
Japan viewed Korea as a staging post for the conquest of China and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 -1598 A.D) made two attempts at invasion; firstly in 1592 and then again in 1597.
In 1592 the surprise attack was met by only token resistance. Seoul and Pyongyang fell in rapid succession. The Ming government sent some 200,000 troops to help push back the Japanese whist the great Korean General Admiral Yi Sun-Sin caused havoc to the Japanese supply chain. Hideyoshi was forced to abandon the invasion.
Subsequent peace negotiations failed and Hideyoshi invaded again in 1597, but with his death in 1598 the troops were withdrawn.
These invasions which overwhelmed Korea and weakened the Ming government were followed in 1627 and 1664 by the Manchus who went on to conquer China in 1644.
Devastated by over 40 years of conflict the Choson government followed a policy of seclusion which continued for over 250 years. However following the Meiji restoration and as part of its expansionist plans, Japan put pressure on Korea to open up its trade borders.
Finally as a result of political pressure, the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895 A.D.) and the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905 A.D.) Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910. Japan’s control of Korea would last until the end of W.W.2.
Again Korea was subject to a ban on martial arts, but during his period many Koreans worked and studied in Japan or were conscripted into their army. As a result many Koreans studied the Japanese arts especially Karate after its introduction from Okinawa in 1922.
These skills were brought back to Korea and reinvented creating new martial arts styles. Today one of the most practised eastern martial arts is that of Tae Kwon Do. An Olympic sport, Tae Kwon Do was only officially recognised in 1955, credit being given to General Choi Hong Hi, who if not a great martial artist, was a master at global marketing of ‘his’ historic Korean art.
The events in Japan during the last 600 years have had a major influence on the way modern martial arts developed and are practised today, especially the influence of the Tokugawa dynasty which still affects the formal way in which many martial arts operate.
Prior to its unification in 1603 by Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616 A.D.,) Japan had been kept in a constant state of conflict by feudal warlords. Indeed, the century from 1470 became known as the “Period of the Country at War”
Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598 his failure to conquer Korea as a staging post to China left his clan weak through the loss of its forces and the cost. His death left a power vacuum which culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600 between a coalition of Eastern Armies lead by Tokugawa and the Western Armies commanded by Ishida Mitsunari and Mōri Terumoto.
Following his victory it took Tokugawa another three years before receiving the title Shogun from Emperor Go-Yōzei.
Ieyasu Tokugawa had immediately allocated land and wealth to his supporters; however he allowed the Shimazu Clan from the Satsuma province who had changed sides at Sekigahara, to retain its domain.
Tokugawa was responsible for sealing Japan’s boarders to the outside world which was formalised by his grandson in the Sakoku between 1633 and 1639. He found through his liaison with William Adams that foreign ideas and technology could be a threat to Japan. Adams had famously been stranded and imprisoned in Japan in 1600 but subsequently assisted Tokugawa in the building of ships and the forging of cannon.
The Tokugawa dynasty ruled ruthlessly and efficiently. They controlled and regulated every aspect of behaviour, what clothes you could wear, what business you could do, who you could marry, the gifts you could give your children. Independent thought or action became seen as rude behaviour. No one could question, with freethinking being punishable by death.
The severity of punishment for infractions was staggering and not necessarily limited to the guilty individual but often their family and even friends and entire villages.
The Tokugawa Shogunate would last 260 years until November 9th, 1867. It was followed by what is known as the Meiji Restoration (the re-establishment of imperial rule to Japan) in 1868.
The legacy of this dynasty is still felt today in both Japan and in many martial arts where student line up dependent on rank, clothes all the same, freethinking and questioning ones Sensei being considered rude and disrespectful.
The Japanese Shimazu (Satsuma) Clan
One particular clan from the Satsuma province would play a key role in the development of Karate.
At the southern tip of Japan, cut off by mountain ranges and Sakurajima , Tokugawa had allowed the Shimazu clan to remain in control of the region. In 1609 Tokugawa had authorised Lord Shimazu to invade the Ryukyu Kingdom and with 3000 soldiers he did, meeting little resistance losing only 57 soldiers. This loss is unsurprising as the islands were unarmed as a result of the polices of King Sho Shin, the son of the first Okinawan King of the Second Sho Dynasty. The victors ‘suggested’ that this policy remain in place which it did until the Meiji Restoration.
After 1609 Okinawa was effectively a colony of Japan, but its political position was ambiguous and suffered from “dual subordination”. It suited the Satsuma clan that Okinawa continued to pay tribute to China whilst clandestinely paying tribute to, and being controlled by them. This was an effective move which allowed the Satsuma clan to enjoy trade with China via Ryukyu even when maritime prohibition was implemented as part of the Japanese Sakoku policy under which relations and trade between Japan and other countries were severely limited .
This left the Second Sho dynasty to run as a puppet government caught between the Satsuma and Chinese and with no weapons to defend themselves, this unique situation which would give rise to the development of modern karate.
The Meiji Restoration (1868 -1912)
In the early 1800s whaling had become a major industry in the west and by the 1840s more than a 1000 American whaling vessels were in Japanese waters. The refusal by Japan and its colonies to provide assistance for repairs or to resupply, lead in 1852 to the US President Millard Fillmore dispatching Commodore Mathew Perry and 15 warships to Japan to open its boarders to trade and diplomatic relations.
Perry arrived in Japan in July 1853. Perry and his “Black Ships” as the Japanese referred to them, intimidated the government with displays of his Paixhans shell guns. He returned again in February 1854 with twice as many ships which eventually lead to the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa (the Japan–US Treaty of Peace and Amity) in March of that year.
Ieyasu Tokugawa had been correct in his assertions that the technology of the west would be a threat to the Japanese way of life, as within 15 years the Tokugawa government had lost face and the dynasty ended.
Nevertheless, Japan took on board the lessons and embraced western technology and ideas creating an expansionist regime which would eventually see itself at war with the US.
The island of Okinawa is the largest of the group of islands known as the Ryukyu. The island sits 400 miles south of Japan and 500 miles east of China and covers an area of only 460 square miles.
Okinawa was too small to support a standing army and largely composed of coral with no natural deposit of iron for weapons manufacture, however it was well positioned for sea trade. This made it an ideal link between the major players in the region.
This somewhat insignificant island was destined to be heavily influential in the development and growth of martial arts in the late 1800’s.
During Sho Shin’s (1465-1526 A.D.) 30 year reign, Okinawa experienced a period of peace and relative prosperity. Disarming the warlords at the time proved an effective mechanism for establishing and maintaining peace on the island. However this policy left the people essentially defenseless.
Chinese culture and its martial arts were already embedded within the Okinawan way of life following the influx of (commonly known and misrepresented as) the 36 families in the late 1300’s.
The Chinese government sent engineers, scholars and bureaucrats, to assist this tribute country, and with them their bodyguards. It was these body guards and security experts who would introduce, over a period of time Chinese Chuan fa this was built upon by a number of Okinawans who travelled to China to study the martial arts.
After the Satsuma invasion Okinawa was left with a puppet king who had to be defended by weaponless bodyguards and paying tribute to two nations. Matters had been difficult but manageable, that was until the increasing influx of US whaling ships in the 19th Century.
There are some occasions where martial arts are identified with the key developers of that art such as General Choi Hong Hi with Tae Kwon Do and Dr. Jigoro Kano with Judo; and it was Sokon Matsumura, born in Shuri in 1796 A.D. chief military commander of Shuri Castle, serving as close adviser and bodyguard to three Sho kings over a 50 year period, who would most influenced the development of linear Karate.
How do you protect the King or deal with civil infringements from visiting foreigners when you are weapon less? These are problems Matsumura had to face for five decades.
To protect the King you needed to surround him with a team of elite bodyguards with multiple skills and tactics. This he did, including but not limited to:
· Chofu Kyan acting as Royal Steward and Keeper of the Royal Seal
· Yasutsune Azato acting as Military Attaché
· Anko Itosu acting as Personal Secretary to the King
· Seisho Arakaki acting as Japanese and Chinese Interrupter
Additionally he needed to develop fighting skills which dealt with multiple opponents, inflicting maximum injury in the least time as possible. With this aim he used his insight into exponential impact, the scientific principal that torque plus speed equals true power to strip back the Chinese arts to linear impact methods.
A unique set of circumstance over a 400-500 year period culminated in the development of linear Karate. The developments by Matsumura, implemented through necessity, become the founding principles of Karate and Tae Kwon Do as practised today. However if we liken Matsumura to the ‘research and development’ arm of Karate then his student Anko Itosu would eventually head up the ‘marketing’ team.
The fall of the Peichin class and the rise of Karate
Mathew Perry and his “Black Ships” had arrived in Naha on its way to Japan in May 1853 and returned in June prior to the arrival in Edo (Tokyo) in July that year. He had used these visits to Okinawa as a rehearsal for his methods to intimidate the Tokugawa Dynasty.
Anko Itosu then in his early 20’s and working with Matsumura would have been in the front line dealing with this ‘invasion’. For the next 26 years, until 1879 when King Sho Tai was ousted and sent into exile in Japan, the two continued to develop the martial arts strategies and skills to handle this new threat.
In 1879 everything changed. Prior to this, although under the scrutiny and discipline of the Japanese Samurai, the Keimochi class including the administrate Peichin class had received hereditary stipends. With the abolition of the Sho Kings the stipends ceased and in 1903 following the land reforms and the abolition of peasant taxes, the Peichin class were left in poverty.
It was during this period that the ‘Okinawan’ art of Karate which had been practice in secrecy for so long was made public.
Anko Itosu is credited with introducing Karate to the Okinawan school system in 1901. By 1905 he was working as a part-time teacher at Okinawa's First Junior Prefectural High School. It is at this time he implemented a simplified and more ‘fitness based’ system with the introduction of the Pinan katas.
It may seem disingenuous to suggest that Itosu’s introduction of Karate into the school system was prompted by financial necessity; however it does appear to mirror today’s larger martial arts organisations which are looking to maintain and increase their financial income stream by intense marketing to and involvement with, children and the education system.
Itosu fashioned a training syllabus with the creation of the five Pinan (Heian in Japanese) katas being simplified variations of high level katas such as Kanku Dai and splitting Naihanchi into three Naihanchi (Tekki) katas making it easier to teach to children.
In 1908 he wrote in a letter to the Prefectural Educational Department, encouraging the introduction of Karate to all Okinawan schools including those on the Japanese mainland. In summary he states:
“In keeping with the above ten precepts, I believe that by having the students of the teacher's school practice it and, upon graduation, after receiving detailed instruction, they would be able to teach it at various elementary schools. If taught correctly, within ten years it will have spread not only throughout Okinawa, but through the entire country of Japan. I believe it will be of tremendous benefit to our nation and military. It is my hope that you will give this serious consideration.”
After his death in 1915 a number of his students continued the promotion of Karate, notably Gichin Funikoshi. A student of Itosu and Yasutsune Azato he an elementary school teacher from the age of 21.
Funikoshi demonstrated in his autobiography that he had the ability to adapt to the social changes taking place around him and for the greater good of the youth who would forge the destiny of Japan.
Funikoshi travelled to Japan in 1922 following an invitation to demonstrate Karate at the ‘All Japan Athletic Exhibition’ in Tokyo. He did not return.
He, much like his mentor Itosu, understood the need for Karate to adapt. He changed Okinawan names to Japanese, he ‘borrowed’ from Kano the idea of ‘coloured belt rankings’ , the introduction of the white training gi and produced books to support the training methods and syllabus supported by ‘his’ 20 precepts.
On 10th April 1924 in less than two years he awarded his 1st black belt certificates under what was eventually to be known as Shotokan Karate.
From the time that Karate had been revealed to the world and Japan’s boarders were opened by Perry, a new Japanese approach that of economic and military ‘expansionism’ was in place. For just over 40 years the small technologically and economically backward Asian country expanded it wealth and territories through military action including:
· The First Sino-Japanese War ( 1894-95)
· Involvement in the Boxer rebellion 1900 as part of the Eight-Nation Alliance
· The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)
· The Annexation of Korea in 1910
· Military support for the Western Allies during WW1
· Invasion of Manchuria in 1931
· The Second Sino-Japanese War which commenced in 1937 and merged into WW2 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
It is not surprising that Japan’s backing for the martial arts and notably that of Karate within the school system was so well supported. The demand for fit, healthy and disciplined young men to undertake this level of expansionism would have been ceaseless.
Itosu’s sales pitch was working “I believe it will be of tremendous benefit to our nation and military” he had said, and so it was proving.
Western Martial Arts
There are many parallels in the development of western martial arts with that of the east. In addition we must remember that martial arts is in fact an English term making reference to the Roman god of war Mars and has been used here as early as the 1550’s.
Long before the Middle Ages, skills had been taught in the weapons of the time. The bow, the sword, the staff and horse riding are skills found in most cultures east and west.
Though hand to hand combat was taught, we can see from “the Tower manuscript” (the earliest surviving European combat manual) dating from about 1300 that most of the instructional material dealt with fencing, as do numerous later manuals along with instructions for the use of the dagger, quarterstaff, cudgel etc.
During the Renaissance firearms had transformed warfare, but not within personal self-defense. This resulted in proliferation of fencing schools which grew into the “Science of Defense”
However the scientific and technical revolutions which spread through Europe in the 18th century replaced the idea of individuals fighting hand to hand combat/duels with that of a technical, mechanical, and industrial method of armed combat.
Parallel to the declining requirement for close quarters combat skills we see a change in what was socially acceptable in combat sports.
Boxing today is very different from that of the 18th Century where grappling (including groundwork), throwing and even kicking when the opponent was downed were all allowed. In some matches weapons were also included, for example in June 1727, a fight between James Figg and Ned Sutton, involved a round with swords, a fist fight and a final bout with cudgels during which Figg broke Sutton's knee.
Over a period of time protective equipment (i.e. boxing gloves, gum shields etc.) and new rules to ensure the safety of the competitors along with a scoring system to enable a winner to be determined without the need for excessive violence were introduced.
Whilst the social changes taking place produced a safer sports environment for individuals, the western world was taking military technology to ever increasing heights. This became all too apparent when Perry sailed into Edo in 1853.
When you consider the military advancements made in the west between 1914 and 1945 only 31 years, we go from the introduction of the tracked tank and ‘flying machines’ to the development of jet fighters and the atomic bomb. As a result by the end of WW2 many would see the need for fighting martial arts as superfluous and would view it as nothing more than a new style of sport.
The Religious and Spiritual Aspect
A large amount of martial arts writing is given up to its religious and spiritual references, I believe in many ways this is overstated. We must look at the social and cultural background to understand why these beliefs and practices were introduced, these include:
· Providing a moral approach to life and society as governed by the accepted standards of the time.
· To provide a belief structure for a warrior to be best focus in battle, be it believing they are on the side of ‘right’ an afterlife, or the loss of self i.e. Zen Muga.
· To provided control and power over the masses.
I believe these represent the essence behind nearly all belief systems, be it Buddhism, (Neo) Confucianism, Zen in the east or Christianity, Islam, Judaism in the west.
Until recently many historical references would lead us to believe that many of the great martial arts masters of the past were almost saints, however
· Chotoku Kyan was said to have advised his students that hard drinking and fornication with prostitutes was an essential part of martial arts training.
· Choi Hong Hi was an adulterer and heavy gambler.
· Grandmaster Nagamine once wrote that Itosu never had a fight and “there was not a single episode describing such an event.” Pure tatemae (see below).
· Even Gitchin Funikoshi who is in general seen as living a very moral life can be viewed by some as demonstrating selfish tendencies when he left his wife for 25 years to purse his own goals.
This is not to say that many people did not fully live their lives by these belief systems and took great strength from them, including making them more effective warriors. However, the individual beliefs are less important than the strength an individual takes from them.
The religious aspects of martial arts can also be contentious when it clashes with those of others. Itosu proved incisive in his marketing of Karate when opening his letter to the Prefectural Educational Department containing his 10 Precepts with the statement:
“Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism”
He understood the need to separate out specific spiritual practices whilst maintaining the moral high ground.
There is certainly need to instil strong moral values when teaching fighting skills which could maim or kill. However, mistaking this as spirituality could be dangerous. I would not deny the right of or indeed the benefits from someone following a spiritual path, (and indeed I can see that the use of meditation for example can have significant benefits within ones martial arts or in life in general ), however I remain suspicious as to it use by religious bodies and the state.
World War 2
By the end of WW2 the USA had levelled a degree of devastation on Okinawa and Japan that would have been unimaginable less than 50 years earlier.
The battle of Okinawa was one of the most intensely fought in the pacific. In the aftermath 90% of the buildings had been destroy and with it most of its historic documents. As many as a third of the population had been killed.
In Japan whilst it was a decisive move to force the Japanese governments surrender the dropping of the two Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented only 3% of the total loss inflicted by the USA. Over 70 major cities were decimated with millions of Japanese’s civilians dying in the flames, and with it Funikoshi’s dojo Shoto-kan.
At the end of WW2 Korea had been released from Japanese control. Since the 1910 annexation many Koreans had been conscripted into the Japanese army or travelled to Japan to study. From the mid 1920’s until WW2 many Koreans would have learnt martial arts from the likes of Funikoshi and his instructors.
On returning home, key individuals and their kwans (schools) looked to distance themselves from their former Japanese masters and create a ‘Korean’ martial art, and in April 1955 was Tae Kwon Do was born.
General Choi Hong Hi is given credit for the development of Tae Kwon Do, he was a man with the marketing skills of Itosu and Funikoshi (with whom he allegedly obtained his 2nd Dan Karate black belt).
From 1955 Choi Hong Hi was a man driven to leave a legacy and be remembered as the father of a ‘complete’ Korean martial arts system, however this is now viewed by many as a sport. The first Tae Kwon Do championships were held in 1962, five years after the first JKA Championships and became part of the Olympics in the summer of 2000.
A Question of Culture
Many of the misunderstanding and misconceptions surrounding leading eastern martial arts currently, arise from cultural differences; be it something simple such as racial ‘hated’ i.e. the Okinawans did not trust the Japanese but respected the Chinese, the Japanese despised the Koreans and other nations but still respected the Chinese, the Koreans despised the Japanese but respected the Chinese, and so forth, or the more complicated Japanese philosophy of ‘tatemae and honne’.
The concept of tatemae and honne is in effect the difference in behavior and opinions one would display in public (a façade) as compared to the true beliefs or feelings. The tatemae may run contradictory to the honne but this is an accepted way of life in Japan.
It is easy to see how this unusual way of managing conflict came about. From 1600 A.D., the Japanese people had lived under Tokugawan rule. All aspects of their lives were regulated. Free thought was dealt with by torture and death not to just the individual but frequently to their family and friends.
A society had learn not to question, that the official story would be accepted as ‘just another kind of truth.’
This concept can be seen as having a negative effect in the 20th Century on the development of Asian martial arts in that students who question (if allowed) masters, would receive the tatemae version of the truth.
Post WW2 – Sport for All
Even before WW2 karate was being developed more as a fitness regime. Kata was performed but much of the underlying applications were not explained. Matsumura’s need to quickly damage or kill a threat to the King no longer applied. Indeed there are those that believe the true applications were not passed down to Funikoshi’s generation. Even if this were not the case, it is fairly certain that due to racial differences, that, for example, Koreans studying Karate in Japan, would not be instructed in the underlying ‘secretes’ of the art.
In Post WW2 Japan under the US occupation, an order was issued prohibiting the practice of martial arts which were thought to foster militarism. However, karate-do along with Aikido were seen as a healthy way to occupy the remaining youth, an additional advantage for karate was that it did not require any equipment and could be practiced anywhere.
There was however a bigger problem, a significant lack of instructors or senior students to teach the art. Many had died in the war or were too poor or jaded to help rebuild the dojos.
Funikoshi survived and went on to rebuild the shoto-kan and in 1949 acted as the honorary head of the Japan Karate Association created by his students.
The shortage of experienced martial arts instructors gave rise to the 'instant instructor', in some cases learning their techniques in the morning and teaching them to ‘their’ students in the evening.
Many US servicemen stationed in Okinawa and Japan chose to train in the martial arts. It is questionable whether the Japanese would teach their conquerors the hidden techniques of the arts even if they knew them themselves.
Many servicemen after only one or two years effectively purchased their black belts through an agreement with the instructor that if they taught in the US they would effectively pay the instructor /master for student certification.
The spread and interest in martial arts into the west post WW2 was remarkable, in the USA from returning servicemen and Japanese masters who emigrated there, with Korea financing Choi Hong Hi’s international demo team and many Koreans also setting up martial arts schools in the US and Europe.
By the 1960’s Karate and Tae Kwon Do had been introduced to the UK, but it was in the early 1970’s and 80 with the release of Hollywood and Asian martial arts films that it became a global phenomenon. Bruce Lee inspired a new generation to take up martial arts and his legacy continues well after his premature death in 1973 through his own style of Jeet Kune Do.
The highly popular martial arts of today only really became known outside of Asia after they had been ‘reformatted’ as a sport.
With the establishment of an appropriate set of rules for kumite (sparring) and kata/forms; the emphasis of martial arts training has, in many disciplines, become primarily focused in these areas supported by ‘martial arts fitness’. Cynically you could see that this made it easier for the ‘instant instructors’ and associations to teach and make money from.
In recent years we have seen a resurgent interest in the fighting applications of the martial arts we practice. A significant factor in this is the creation of the World Wide Web in the early 1990’s allowing us unprecedented access to information and ideas, and the creation of global communities of like-minded individuals.
Whilst not accepted by many ‘traditionalists,’ martial artists such as Karate’s Iain Abernethy and Tae Kwon Do’s Stuart Anslow, are seeking to explore the underlying applications of their arts, not seeking to replace the sports aspect but to enhance our knowledge of what once was a skill developed to defend oneself and others from potentially life threatening situations.
In the west we don’t easily accept the idea of ‘tatemae’ and it should be remembered that not one of the major masters responsible for the development of Asian martial arts handed it on unchanged.
The mounting pressure to look beyond the sport and the simplified applications of techniques supplied by the ’instant instructor’ or the master who was never taught the true applications is an area in which many western martial artist are influencing the continued development of the arts even in their birthplaces in the east.
It should be remembered that styles which seek to ensure there are no changes to the arts they practice such as Karate and Tae Kwon Do are actually breaking the traditions they seek to maintain, and as such, run the long term risk of being lost.
There is no requirement for a student to take on board everything that a martial art has to offer. If an individual enjoys it as a sport and for fitness then this is as acceptable as the person who wishes to study it from an historical basis, to explore the hidden applications or indeed as part of a spiritual journey.
My favourite quote from the research that I have undertaken is from Funikoshi when talking of his Okinawan instructors:
“Both Azato and his good friend Itosu shared at least one quality of greatness: they suffered from no petty jealousy of other masters”
Throughout the historical information we have considered above, it seems we have at least four key themes which have affected the development of the martial arts in eastern and western cultures.
1. Inclusion verses isolationism:
Where countries borders have been closed particularly under repressive regimes, there has been a decline in the technological innovations in weapons and a suppression of martial arts.
When knowledge and ideas are shared freely across nations we have seen a general growth in concepts and style, currently the internet provides us with the greatest tool for the future development of martial arts.
2. The needs of the individual:
There are time when an individual’s needs will rise above the repression of the state, be it in the case of Matsumura undertaking his role as military commander, for those seeking personal glory as in Choi Hong Hi or simply for survival as with the Peichin class after the Meiji restoration. In some respects this is also reflected in the desire for personal gain shown by many of the ‘instant instructors’ or the ‘black belt’ factories whose main motivation is money.
3. Tatemae v Honne:
Tatemae verses honne can in some ways be compared to East verses West. There are considerable difference between the two cultures arising from the individual history of isolationism and repression or the renaissance and exploration.
Many of the Asian countries today seek to emulate western culture be it economically, or through youth culture, this cannot fail to have an effect on the way that eastern martial arts will develop or at least that is the Tatemae.
Whilst potentially controversial I do not accept the overriding theme of spirituality being a necessary and integral part of martial arts, particularly within today’s society. Ask most students why they began training and the main answers will include ‘self-defence’, ‘fitness’ ‘the competitions’, or for ‘fun’ very few will have even considered the spiritual aspects and indeed in most training halls this is hardly discussed.
When developing martial arts for real life or death situations we see the likes of Matsumura stripping away the Buddhist ideology in order to achieve its aims, this is reaffirmed by Itosu in his letter to the Prefectural Educational Department.
There is no doubt that this element has been used to great effect in the past, the spirit of bushido was ingrained into the samurai’s very being, but this can also be viewed as the states mechanism for controlling cultural and social activity. These ideas may have come into conflict with other doctrines at the time such as Confucianism but ethical dilemmas can be overcome, for example the vendetta of the 47 Ronin would have been considered a Confucian ‘illegal act’, but to many Confucian scholars such as Muro Kyuso it could also be viewed as self-sacrificing dedication displaying honourableness and loyalty.
In my opinion there is a clear need to differentiate the need for morality within martial arts from that of religion and spirituality which can be corrupted.
To corrupt a saying: One man’s terrorist is another mans Samurai.
In compiling this short history I have utilised the works of many individuals,
including but not limited to :
Bruce Clayton Ph.D.
Iain Abernethy and
All of who have my great respect and appreciation.