With the death of 24 Fighting Chickens, I have the opportunity to review the various impressions that site made on me over the years. They've ranged from the purely positive to the purely negative to places in between, depending on what I was reading, how much "tone" I found in it, and, yes, how closely it agreed with my approach to karate. After all, I have found beauty and joy in the Japanese culture and traditions, and prefer to celebrate rather than bury them, so I wasn't going to agree with all the people who said they were irrelevant, meaningless, or just plain stupid, and should be thrown out.
But that also gets me to thinking: Why do karate discussions end up embroiled in all these questions about tradition and philosophy? Other sports do not suffer from this hobble, other sports don't seem to have nearly as much history of schisms and politics. Perhaps that's because, strictly speaking, karate is not a "sport"? Oh but wait, the arguments that rage, frequently do so over just that issue. Is karate a sport, or a martial art? Or both? Can it be both? Are there truly the in-between shades? Or are all of us just fooling ourselves, and karate is something totally else?
I do think that to some degree, karate is both all things to all people, and then again purely what you make it. Karate has such a long history, and yes, that history is steeped in many traditions, rituals, and cultural influences. Do you need to understand and appreciate them all in order to learn the physical movements? No, of course not. Someone can teach you the mechanics of a proper punch or kick whether you have any interest in Japanese or Okinawan history, or not.
The question of whether or not they are relevant is much harder to answer, and in my opinion, it's highly personal. For me, the Eastern philosophy has been an adventure, one that I feel has greatly enriched me. I know people who have done karate purely as a physical workout, neither asking nor gaining anything more, and I could not say that they enjoy it less than me. They just enjoy it differently. They won't get out of it what I do, but then, they aren't looking for that either. The same can be said for the influence of Japanese culture. Once I gained more understanding of the cultural background where many of the dojo traditions were born, they seemed perfectly appropriate for the setting, although I have no intention of bowing to someone on the street, just because many Japanese do. I'll settle for handshakes or a simple nod of the head. You can appreciate something without trying to mimic it, and without getting carried away.
I do karate as an American who has lived and traveled extensively overseas, and tends to find other cultures both intriguing and beautiful. Chadie, in Sweden, does karate as a Swedish woman with 2 sons, whose entire family is involved in Asian martial arts. My boyfriend does karate as someone who started when he was just 7 years old, and calls the dojo a second home. Other friends do karate as a workout, others do it socially, others do it in an aggressively "Western" way, rejecting everything Eastern about their art of choice.
The truth is, you're fooling yourself if you think you can remove the cultural influences, either from yourself, or from karate. I look at the world as an American woman -- I have no choice about that. My background is what it is. My Japanese friends who live here live in an American setting and do many "American" things, but they live still as Japanese, in many ways; not in pagodas or practicing tea ceremonies, but as products of the culture they were raised in. Traditional karate comes burdened with a long history of influences, as impossible to eradicate as my being an American and a Caucasian and a woman. To remove any of these things makes me something other than what I am.
Not only do I get tired of the infighting that sometimes seems to plague my martial art, but honestly, it seems so pointless. What are we fighting over? Are we fighting over where karate came from? Are we fighting over who we are, and how we approach our karate? You can't change things that are. You can have an opinion on them, but no matter how hard you try, you can't change karate from an Asian martial art into a Western martial art. You can't change yourself from being who you are, and appreciating (or not appreciating) the things you do. All you can do is try to merge and adapt as needed to find a happy harmony of form and function, where worlds do not so much collide as meet and intersect. And you need to understand that your intersection will not be like anyone else's. My intersection found me sitting over near the Eastern edge of philosophy, someone else's will be on the extreme Western side (which is to say, they will probably disclaim any philosophy whatsoever).
My vision for the future of karate would be one that had room for ALL viewpoints and ALL backgrounds, with no more finger pointing, no more attitudes of superiority. I would envision a karate community where people could respect those with different approaches, backgrounds and philosophies, from the purely physical to the nearly spiritual, whether you agree or not. A community that supported itself instead of attacking from within.
After all, lest we forget: We're all doing karate!