Late last year, I returned to practising karate on a weekly basis (when I haven’t been away teaching, or in self-isolation due to the current coronavirus). I used to practise Shoto Budo karate and now I am taking up Kyokushinkai karate – it has been a fascinating experience, because it is both quite similar to what I used to do, and yet there are so many differences!
I have written extensively about systems of martial arts, and this experience is giving me some new insights into this matter.
I first began training karate at the age of 10, in the Shoto Budo organisation. I practised for 14 years, gaining my 3rd Dan black belt in the process, and I ran my own Shoto Budo karate club for about 4 years.
While running my own club, I began practising HEMA, and I reached the stage where I only had enough time (and money!) to study one martial art in the depth it required. So I decided to step back from karate (I could always return to it in the future) and concentrate on my new HEMA studies, to see where that would take me.
Over the last decade or so, since stepping back from karate, I have experienced a variety of different martial arts in formal and informal settings. I have dabbled in and played with modern and classical fencing, kendo, archery, muay thai, and wrestling, and these have all given me insights and valuable lessons.
The concept of systems
A simple summary of my perspective on systems is that throughout history and across the world, there have been different problems involving violence, and each required a different solution (perhaps involving violence). A martial art is just one possible solution to a particular violent problem.
For example, boxing and karate might be different solutions to the problem of one unarmed person threatening or attacking another unarmed person, who needs to defend himself. Kendo and German longsword might be different solutions to the problem of two people armed with two-handed swords meeting in a relatively even engagement at various points in history. Iberian montante and modern close quarters combat pistol shooting might both solve the problem of acting as a bodyguard for a VIP.
Systems tend to be self-contained methods of fighting that are internally consistent and that provide the necessary tools to solve the problem at hand. If you have a reasonably comprehensive system, then there is no need to train other arts as well, because your system has sufficient tools for the task.
Different flavours of a discipline may be different enough to be seen as different systems. I have written about this before in my article about a framework for comparing different systems. Sometimes people disagree with me that different flavours of a discipline are all that different from each other, because “there are only so many ways for the body to move”, and as a result I often hear it suggested that Liechtenauer longsword must be the same as Fiore longsword, which must also be the same as kendo and kenjutsu and iaido, and may also be the same as modern Olympic fencing because that also involves swords.
Two systems of karate…
When I went along to the new Kyokushinkai karate club, I wore my white belt, even though I have a black belt in a different art. Part of this was because I felt very rusty; part of it was out of respect for the people in the new dojo that I was visiting for the first time; and part of it was because I earned that black belt in a different system and a different organisation, and I hadn’t earned it in Kyokushinkai.
The sensei (instructor) at the new club respected my experience, offered to allow me to wear my black belt within the club if I wanted, but cautioned that the Kyokushinkai organisation would be unable to ratify it due to admin issues. That was very kind of him, but I chose to keep wearing my white belt. I’m glad I did that!
The new method of karate that I am learning is similar to what I learned previously. The terminology is mostly the same – but slightly different. The shapes and structures are similar to what I learned before – but slightly different. The katas are very similar to what I already know – but different. The whole culture of the organisation, and the expectations around what different grades mean and the philosophy behind the practice, are all different. I cannot perform at a black belt standard in this new organisation, because my knowledge is different and not quite right for the standards and methods of practice of this organisation.
I do not feel at all slighted by this. I am enjoying the challenge of altering 14 years of muscle memory! Learning to bring my hikite (the hand that returns towards the body while performing a technique such as a punch with the other hand) to my chest rather than to my hip is something that keeps catching me out, for example. I don’t forget to make my hikite, I don’t forget to do something with my hand, I just bring it back to the “wrong” ready position.
Is what I am doing so very “wrong”? If I perform a technique well enough to hit my target without getting hit myself, does it really matter if my hand goes to my hip or my chest? In the mythical “real fight”, it probably doesn’t matter very much. In tournament fighting, where I maybe just need to land a sufficient number of “good enough” hits on my opponent, maybe it doesn’t matter. But in terms of meeting the requirements set by this organisation, it is wrong when it is not correct.
For it to be correct, I have to do it differently. I cannot just do my Shoto Budo karate and expect my Kyokushin sensei to tell me that that looks sufficiently correct and that why don’t I have a brown belt while I’m at it. That would be ridiculous! It would also be immensely disrespectful to my new sensei to ignore everything he tells me about how to perform techniques and to insist that what I am doing is already of black belt standard in another organisation and therefore it must be sufficiently correct in this organisation. I don’t think I could actually bring myself to do that. I would be too embarrassed to even think of such a thing, let alone to say it to my new sensei.
These are all fascinating insights and experiences that I am finding incredibly valuable in framing (maybe reframing?) how I think about systems for HEMA. My new instructor is being very patient with me as I struggle to adapt all my muscle memory, and one of the things I appreciate most about how he speaks to me is that he never says “that is rubbish, this is the better way to do it”, but instead he tends to say something like “we do it this way instead”. I am more than happy to adapt my practice so that it is what this organisation teaches, because my existing skills are not being belittled.
I think my Shoto Budo experience has been incredibly valuable to me as I have developed as a martial artist over the last two and a half decades. I think it has instilled a number of important skills, techniques, and responses that I would be able to rely on should I ever find the need to do so. However, I am also enjoying adding a different flavour of karate to my skill set, and I have no doubt that it will also be valuable to me, should I find myself in a situation where I might need to use it.
But, perhaps most importantly given what I have written previously about systems, I am finding that even though these two systems of karate are so similar to each other, I cannot mash them together or do both of them at the same time. I have to pick one or the other in order to perform Shoto Budo karate or Kyokushinkai karate in a recognisable and “correct” fashion. Just before Christmas, I did my first grading in Kyokushinkai, and I performed well enough to earn my red belt at Kyokushinkai. I didn’t perform well enough at this system to earn a higher grade; and I am perfectly happy with that.
I look forward to continuing to train at the Kyokushinkai club, and perhaps even at some point in the future I will find my way back to Shoto Budo and find that my muscle memory is totally confused again. The journey of learning and training is a joy.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.