Karate’s Hard/Soft Way
I’ve noticed something as I’ve continued to research, study, and watch karate grow. In general, the art is becoming more and more rigid, snappy, and formulaic.
Attend any karate tournament and you’ll likely see deep stances accompanied by high kicks, lung punches, and extended kiai. Even among traditional circles the focus is often on body conditioning, toughness, and impact.
Interestingly, in its early years karate was intended to be a combination of both hard and soft methods. Indeed, one of karate’s branches (Goju Ryu) was originally named with such a concept in mind.
Consider some of the major influences on karate, most notably those from China. Chinese arts such as White Crane, Bagua, and Wushu utilize flowing motions. Those arts stress a relaxed body wherein impact comes from a whip-like motion as the body’s force comes together.
In the early days of Okinawa, many Chinese emissaries and merchants traveled and shared their experiences with the higher Okinawan classes. As such, we see serious influence on early karate from Chinese resources.
When one researches early karate texts and views some of the old practitioners the softness of their methods is unmistakable. However, due to a combination of social, military, and business agendas, the harder aspects of karate became favored and received overwhelming focus.
Once Japan caught wind of karate’s practice, it decided to try and integrate the art as part of their school system. Their agenda was to strengthen the youth of their nation as well as engender a sense of militarism, behavior, and nationalism early on.
America, which experienced karate mostly through military personnel in the early days, had a similar experience where tough soldiers saw and took the toughest aspects of what they perceived karate to be.
Back in the states, the most visually impressive and marketable parts of karate were those hard, board breaking, punches and kicks. It took little time for American artists with entrepreneurial spirit to bend what they saw into a salable product.
Now, with the improvement of communication and technology, it’s possible for more and more artists to see what else is out there, to view videos of the old masters, and interact with practitioners of older, non-marketed karate methods.
It’s my hope that the curtain of “hard only” on karate is slowly being lifted, and some of the more “soft” methods come back to help make more people’s karate complete once again.
Matthew Apsokardu is a practitioner of Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo. He is the author of IkigaiWay – Martial ArtsBlog.