Function over Form

The following essay was written by Ben Craft Shihan and sent to myself a few days ago and I felt the urge to share it with the martial art and karate community. It’s a very interesting and well written article about the evolution of Function and Form in martial arts, in general, and karate-jutsu, from Okinawa to Japan and the West, in particular.


Hi Sensei Fernando

I’m delighted to have been asked to be a technical advisor to SKA. I hope to bring some of my functional combat knowledge to the Academy. I have therefore taken the liberty of submitting this essay which gives a brief outline on the development of modern karate and its relationship with it’s more pragmatic mother art Ryu Kyu Kempo.

The Karate we practice is generally termed ‘Traditional Karate’. The word traditional can be defined as the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation. However, Karate (or more accurately Karate-Do) in it’s present form has only existed for around a century. Indeed, the term Karate was only officially adopted in 1936. The military style line-up, with all students performing the same technique by command of the sensei, only came into practice in the late 1930s. By this time Karate had become established in a number of Japanese Universities with many students attending the classes. The easiest way to teach a large groups was to line everyone up and have them perform in unison, and this method has now become the norm. So why is Karate-Do termed ‘Traditional’ one might ask. In the early 1970s Full Contact Karate came into existence. This was seen as the progressive face of Karate and lead to a distinction between those practising this contemporary version of ‘Contact Karate’ and those following what was then termed ‘Traditional Karate’.

In order to better understand this we must look at the evolution of Gendai Budo (Modern Martial art way) and it’s predecessor Koryu Bu Jutsu (Old Style Martial Art Method). In 1882 Dr. Jigoro Kano established a new martial art. A hybrid fusion of several Koryu (old style) Ju Jutsu systems. He named this new art Kodokan Judo. Kano devised a physical education program with a sport competition element and introduced the Yudansha (blackbelt) ranking system. Many of the more dangerous techniques of Ju Jutsu were eliminated to create a safe contest format. Judo quickly became popular especially among children. Around the time Judo was gaining much popularity on the mainland of Japan, many noted Okinawa martial art exponents had also began to realise that a simplified version of their indigenous fighting art (known by several names including Kempo, Todi and Uchinadi) could also be taught to a wider public. So like Judo, many of the more dangerous techniques of Kempo were removed and much of the technical content simplified. This Kempo hybrid would evolve into modern Karate-Do.

Shotokan Karate founder Gichin Funakoshi became the first Karate master to establish a school on the mainland of Japan. Funakoshi adopted the ranking system developed by Kano, and likewise a contest format that would not only be safe, but would not conflict with Judo, hence no grappling or throwing. His son Yoshintaka ‘Giko’ Funakoshi is responsible for the dynamic look of modern karate. So we have established that Judo and Karate-Do are Gendai Budo Ryuha (Modern Martial Art schools) developed in recent history from Koryu Bu Jutsu Ryuha (Old Style Martial Systems).

This brings me to the issue of function over form. Traditionally Bu Jutsu (Military methods) were practiced primarily for function. Sadly, many ancient fighting skills fell into disuse with the invention of firearms. However, many practitioners of these formidable fighting arts chose to continue to practice there ‘Warfare’ skills as a means of self development. The emphasis moving away from function and into perfection of form. This practice became Budo (Military Way/Path). The notion of form over function is a vital part of modern Japanese martial arts practice and exists with karate-Do. Karate, like many martial arts, is changing and evolving. Until quite recently no grabbing or throwing was allowed in Karate contest. This was reflected in the lack of attention placed on the practice of these skill in the Dojo. The Budo objective of form over function allowed these vital combat components to be happily omitted. Likewise many kata bunkai are stylised and superficial with no real combat value. In order to become ‘fully rounded’ in unarmed combat, grappling and throwing needed to be studied elsewhere. Fortunately in the last decade there has been a resurgence of interest in the real function of Karate in its original form. This is something I have happily embraced and wish to encourage within SKA.

If we wish to truly practice Karate in a ‘traditional fashion’ we must not overlook its original functional self defence element.


Ben Craft


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