Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Politics of Olympic Karate

Over at Kung Fu Tea was an article about the politics behind Karate becoming an Olympic sport. Below is an excerpt. The full post  may be read here.


We are very pleased to host the following essay on Karate’s appearance in the Tokyo Olympics by Prof. Stephen Chan. This is an important topic, particularly to readers who follow the debates surrounding the inclusion and exclusion of certain sports from the games. Yet his discussion transcends the more common narrative of nationally bounded scorekeeping and instead asks what other sorts of work Karate’s Olympic moment accomplished.

Prof. Chan is a founding figure within the Martial Arts Studies community who delivered the first keynote address kicking-off what has since became our annual series of Martial Arts Studies conferences. He is an accomplished practitioner of karate, martial arts instructor and a distinguished political scientist whose writing I have always enjoyed. It is truly a pleasure to welcome him back to Kung Fu Tea.

The Politics of an Olympic Medal

by Stephen Chan

Among karate practitioners internationally the advent of their sport in the Tokyo Olympics, after years of campaigning, was eagerly awaited – but curiously not so much in Japan itself; and the reason for this was its image of violence, not necessarily in the sport itself with its elaborate (though not always successful) safety rules, but in its perceived sociological niche as a working class pursuit. Ju jutsu was, in the same stereotyping, a pursuit of Yakuza and other gangsters. Ju jutsu’s refinement as judo, alongside sumo, kendo, aikido, kyudo (archery) and above all iaido were the sports of gentlemen, or had been accepted at court, and were, moreover, (with the exception of judo) more authentically and historically Japanese. However, judo had been refined enough to pass muster, but karate was without noble pedigree and never quite lost its tag of origin in Okinawa, the most ‘backward’ of the Japanese islands.

These are generalisations to be sure but, despite all the increasing overlays of sophistication and efforts to render karate a martial art equal to the others, it probably took the modern phenomenon of manga with its heroes and villains deploying karate techniques to bring it towards public acceptance.

In Olympic terms, the success of South Korea’s tae kwon do with its development of clearly derivative techniques (despite the Korean claim to its own historical authenticity) was a goad to having, finally, its karate ancestor placed alongside it as an Olympic sport. The leverage of the previous Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, long a powerful politician and himself a karate third degree black belt – a person who rose from exactly a poor farming and working class background – helped greatly with the campaign for karate’s inclusion. Suga’s well-advertised physical fitness routine which includes 200 situps every day meant it was difficult for more sedentary politicians to gainsay him.

But karate’s inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics meant that Japan had two martial arts represented – karate and judo. South Korea had one, tae kwon do. China has none of its martial arts in the Olympics. Karate’s entry was always going to be tenuous in the terms of the numbers game as to who gets how many of which sports.

If Japan was in this sense in a weak position to insist on karate’s inclusion in the forthcoming Paris Olympics – it already had judo – then other countries were not going to act as karate’s champion. Karate is strong in France, but the international governing body, the World Karate Federation (WKF), does not command total support from the karate community in the USA; and its affiliate in the UK, the English Karate Federation (EKF) has no throw-weight in UK sporting or Olympic politics.  Without the two Anglophonic giants of world sports insisting on karate continuing in the Olympics its dropping from the Paris agenda was accomplished with barely a murmur of protest from sporting establishments with quite enough already on their agendas. 

Moreover, it has to be said that the Tokyo Olympics featured bouts of sometimes dubious quality and certainly enigmatic judging. As a spectator-friendly event, karate appealed to afficionados but not very many others. There was no wave afterwards of members of the public seeking to learn karate.

As for the WKF itself, it is a strange survivor of internecine struggles that have bedevilled karate since its inception as a sport with international participants. Particularly in the USA there were ‘world championships’ that featured in the 1960s and into the 70s almost entirely American entrants – some of whom went on to become movie stars, such as Chuck Norris, and who certainly featured on the covers of the karate magazines of that era – so that the glamour, and also lack of any international regulatory environment, made karate seem almost splendidly anarchic as the Bruce Lee era dawned. With the dawning precisely of that era, regulatory regularity at least became desirable if only to avoid injuries and their almost random causation.


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