Why your Karate sucks…

Yes, yes… Stephan Yamamoto is at it… again! Provoking and judging people he has never met, promoting Japanese „neurosis“ by referring to rules, and always bashing the karate federation and its members. All their Karate sucks, he says. And your Karate sucks, too, he says…

But is that true?

In my work and dedication of promoting Karate I experienced many shitstorms (even before this particular term came to life). It all started when I travelled and finally moved to Japan to explore Karate and Budo in a deeper way. I dared asking rhetorical questions online about the – to me – pretty obvious differences between Japanese and German Karate in praxii. But this was no „bad mistake“. It had me doing research which merged with my studies of religion. What came back was mostly unobjective howling and affronts with no substance for a valid argument. Interestingly, those with similar experiences – either through training in Japan or due to research – almost never argued with me about this. It were rather people who had never questioned their own role in the contemporary formations of Karate. They just saw something being threatened by my remarks. Please note, that I am not making general judgements on all people in the Karate world – there are simply too many to do such a thing. I cannot know what thousands of people have in their minds. I am just referring to what I have encountered so far. And that is representative.


The problem with even profound criticism

Criticism on contemporary formations of Karate, or any forms of martial arts in general, is regarded the work of a coward, a mentally ill person, or at least a morally inadequate character. I had been named all that in the past on the internet. But why is criticism within the traditional martial arts such a delicate thing, especially when it comes to discussions online, where practical demonstrations are – due to the nature of the digital medium – impossible? Within the discursive online settings, analytic methods of history, cultural theory, and functional anatomy are not regarded a source of knowledge but a disturbance of comfort and identity. Where countless websites still reproduce the old tales of Bodhidharma, magic pressure points of „the old masters“, and converting the tournament Karate of the 1960’s into philosophical and spiritual traditions of „the samurai“ (Yamamoto 2017b), being thousands of years old, knowledge updates are a menace to identities created from those tales and the backward linking of practice.

Therefore, two advices arise. To the ones questioning today’s formations: Don’t lose your courage. But make sure your criticism is well-founded and intellectually and academically adequate. And most important: Make it a basis of your training and teaching, since Karate is made in the dojo, and not online. To those who are in fear of criticism: It is nothing personal. It rather is a suggestion to rethink what you believe in. Yes, I am saying „believe“, since it is you – whose Karate does suck – referring to „philosophy“ and western religious analogies to contemporary formations of „the East“, when it comes to what your training provides you with. Where you get your social identity from is not my business. And I am not responsible for your comprehension in the field of martial arts. I am not your teacher unless you want me to (and if I comply.). I am just sharing my experinces and my research of what I love to do most. I dedicated my life to the practice of Budo in general and to Karate specifically. And I expect you to do the same, if you want to challenge me. So, it is on you not to make the hasty judgements you try to force upon me. If you are ready to join a vivid and open discourse, you should carry on reading. Your position will be respected. If you are in fear of losing your comfort zone, stop reading this. But make sure not to slander me for your inflexibility.


So, why does your Karate suck?

I am inviting you on a journey to find your way of steering through the dynamic steam of improving your Karate through trial and error. Because struggle is the main force that builds martial arts comprehension. This is called „Budo no nayami“ (武道の悩み) in Japanese, the „bitterness of the martial arts“. Going through techniques, kata and bouts about 10,000 times without improving or winning in the first place is a delusional experience. If Karate training has ever been a spiritual practice or a matter of building character (beyond a 19th century nationalistic identity), it is this delusional experience of one’s own limitations. This has been sketched by Hino Akira in his latest book (Hino 2017: 197-206). To overcome those limitations is the goal of martial arts practice, that is human movement, and therefore a purely natural and consequently simple thing. (I will come back to this later.) It is not the „ultimate truth“ I am telling you, but it is my very own approach to martial arts as a result of my training with some skilled masters and my research. It doesn’t mean that you are not allowed to find your spirituality in other connotations of martial arts than I did. And it doesn’t mean, you are not doing a „true“ Karate, when you compete in tournaments. That is all fine to me. Since Budo (martial arts) is a transcultural formation containing many levels and realms of social reality, it doesn’t mean it is wrong what you are doing, even in the light of the obvious contradictions between our ways of training. I simply want you to ask yourself the same question I encountered when training in Japan: Are your intentions, your goals, and your teachings being supported by the way you train Karate up to this point? If your answer is „no“, then your Karate sucks. Because it lacks the proper methods which make you reach your goals. That was easy, wasn’t it?

I am not questioning you in person (we have probably never met), like you probably did with me (without having met me, either). And I am not questioning your moral integrity, your mental health or your competence, either. I am inviting you to experience something you may not have experienced yet. So, in case you are seeking something you have seen on the internet, read about in an article (preferably one of mine) or seen on a seminar, and it is not part of your training, you have two options: You can either dig deep and make it your own. Or you can discard it as some magical bullshit that doesn’t stand a chance against your brutality. I have met many Karateka who rejected structural body work for example, referring to their ability of punching down every opponent. If you tend to the second option, your Karate sucks. Because you are not working to overcome your limitations. It has nothing to do with what you believe in or ascribe to your training. It is not about your personality, in which I take absolutely no interest.You might not want to work with structural manipulations, for example because you are not feeling comfortable with this. Because it is not needed or not useful in tournament fighting. Or, you are simply not ready for it. Whatever reason it might be, I see objectively: You do not struggle, thus not evolving (learning), under the second option

An example for structural body work (YSPC Martial Arts Academy).

Another example I like to refer to is functional training and slow movement. Since I have no interest in modern tournament Karate with its specialization in acrobatic elements, thus being suitable for young people only, my inspirational sources were people with similar experiences in their struggle for excellence as mine. And my therapeutic (or rather preventive) approach towards movement has unfortunately placed me within the framework of some geriatric gymnastics. „Stephan Yamamoto’s Karate is good for training elder people“, somebody recently said. It is, to some extent. But it is the conception of being old, that has me shaking my head. Because it is another judgement about my personal motives and my intentions in teaching. And a wrong one, I might add. Since I worked with people in their prime of life regarding their calendrical age, their movement habits were either dictated by pain or by restrictions which are rather being associated with very old people. The most tangible case was a young mother (in her thirties), working in a higher local government agency (a secure job), running marathons (which means she wasn’t overweight and had a healthy cardiovascular system) with severe back pain and no medical reason for it. So, pain and restrictions in movement is no matter of old age. I experienced „old“ dysfunctional and painful movement habits myself in my beginning twenties due to an intensive training in German Karate with its „kime“ and self-brutality (Yamamoto 2012). And I managed to realize that my Karate sucked back then, because it was giving me pain. This improved when I recieved instruction from my Japanese teachers, because they stressed the importance of relaxed movements. Something turned out to be different with the training I enjoy now compared with the „kime brutality“. With researching body works and functional training during the past years I incorporated elements of this training into my Karate teaching. You probably didn’t do all of this. This is one more possible reason why your Karate sucks.


Where have we come from in this?

The reason why your Karate sucks might be the lacking of these findings in your training. Again, this is no judgement of you as a person and your training and teaching. It is just objective deficits with the majority of traditional martial arts and their actors I have met so far. And I am not alone with such a kind of analysis. When I join a German dojo or club for training, discussions might arise during the session (which is a distinct sign of the insecurity and anger governing that institution) regarding my techniques and kata and why I am doing them differently. Eventually, my lack of „kime“ is the topic, although even German scholars have written extensively about this matter. So, why should I be reluctant with my findings and experiences in this context? Why should I discard my training and education in order to keep some kind of „peace and harmony“? This has nothing to do with the „perfectioned character“ your „philosophy“ constructs. Keeping quiet means to support your superficial knowledge. And no one does this in whatever context. Only in Karate, people seem to leave reason and the virtues of life-long learning behind. How did it come to this? It is the threatening effect, constructive criticism has on people, when it comes to formations buliding identity. So I don’t blame you for reacting like a sulky infant on the net. It is not your fault. But what should I do to avoid those discussions? I could stay away from any other dojo. But what about people joining my training or seminars, starting discussions about how referees would evaluate my techniques? Staying offline? What about the (on- and offline) community, of which I am a part of? Doing Karate is a matter of interacting with human beings. If your Karate developed the human self, self-exclusion from the commmunity would not be the best idea. I am also a part of the discourse on martial arts. That is your fault, because you tried to compromise me in the past – you have made me famous on the internet with your bullying and your judgements. But some people build their opinions after careful consideration instead of hastiness. Other people even read English, but you refuse to read anyway. Your hard luck!


Where do we go from here?

I simply do not care, wether or why your Karate sucks. It just does. But it is not my job to fix your issues with me. We probably won’t even meet in person to exchange our viewpoints. So why all the fuzz on Facebook and waste your time? If you feel addressed by this article, provoked or even challenged, you might bring forward your own research and findings: „Your are right, but I don’t agree with you…“ Oh, really? Well, I don’t give a shit. In case you have overread my statements so far: Your training, your Karate, your dojo, your knowledge… everything is just fine the way it is. And I am not talking about your or my communication that shapes the reality between us. Being polite (as often claimed by the party questioned) is not what questioning the status quo is about. And it serves no purpose if one wants to deepen the understanding of Karate as a form of movement. Coming back to the idea of Karate as a form of natural and simple movement: This is a concept of martial arts often stated. Again, I am referring to the teachings and publications of Hino Akira. But other teachers like Kuroda Tetsuzan share the same common viewpoints of Budo as a form of natural, relaxed movement. Therefore, „Kime“ for example as the focus of muscular power is a misconception, perhaps based on a faulty translation or on the lack of comprehension. If your Karate ought not to suck, then accept what researchers and teachers have communicated through their work so far. Don’t blame me for having moved on. Ask yourself, why you haven’t. (You definetely haven’t.) And you might feel a weight dropping off your heart and your soul.

My goal is to practise Karate until I die at old age. And the methods and concepts I learned from my teachers enable me to do so. This is why my Karate doesn’t suck. Don’t question me in the first place! Update your knowledge, question your motives, and ask yourself why the identity you gain from your training keeps you away from a profound discussion. If you do all this, we might be friends on the way of Karate one day. If you don’t, your Karate sucks.


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