What is Karate Worth?

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Let us say you are growing up in a reasonably high class family. You own land, but do not farm for yourself.

Instead you learn to read, write, legislate and enforce a system that keeps the country stable politically and economically.

At times, people in your class, are required to go and speak to the farmers, merchants and fisherman, asking them to pay taxes, to settle disputes and to ensure the laws of the country are being followed.

Times can be tough, technology has yet to advance which would see a leap forward in the use of mechanised farming, mass manufacturing and better medical care.

It is hard to grow food, yearly storms destroy crops, fresh water is a scarce commodity and sometimes the yield just isn’t high enough.

The work is hard, toiling everyday in the fields leaves farmers bodies wrecked, fisherman can potentially be swept away by a storm, have difficulty maintaining their boats and are scarred by the long days out at sea.

Everyone has their place but does their part.

Trade is very important; what your country produces in food alone won't feed all the people, so having materials, both raw and manufactured, that can be traded for other goods and produce, will help to maintain life for the people on the island.

The best you, the individual, have to offer is knowledge gained from trade with other countries and what has been passed down from generation to generation within your family and close community.

This knowledge not only benefits you and the king, but also the kings family, and your family.

Your knowledge is an essential part to maintaining the status quo of the system.

Your neighbour has a son who is born frail, and grows up weak and small. It is not understood what factors have made the boy so weak, but it is understood what can help.

You know a man who is strong, seemingly more than average.

He is 40 years your senior, is a close aide to the King, and has outlived many others on the island due to the commonly low average life expectancy.

He agrees to help the young boy, to bring about good health and vigour into the body, and to pass on skills which could be used to protect him, and his future generations, from the perils of thievery and physical violence.

It is called Tode, Chinese Hand, a method of combat, art and physical education which has elements of moral education.

This Karate man, was sent by special envoy to China, paid for by the King, to bring back the knowledge to help his fellow countrymen and government.

You neighbour cannot afford to send his weak son to China, and nor do you have much money to repay the Karate man.

You can bring gifts, complete jobs, and swear on your honour that the young boy will grow to preserve the knowledge.

He agrees with the exchange.

Although I made this story up many parts are based on fact.

Kyan Chotoku grew up frail, suffering from asthma and poor eyesight. His father had him train under Sokon Matsumura.

Funakoshi Gichin was introduced to Karate by his friend at school, and would later become influential in preserving Okinawa’s cultural heritage by helping to establish Karate on mainland Japan.

Despite his class he was required to work as a school teacher in Okinawa, had very little money and had to rely on the generosity of others to be able to travel and live in Tokyo.

Kenwa Mabuni reportedly had a weak constitution and at the age of 13 began to train in Shuri-Te under Itosu Anko, and was also one of the most influential pioneers in teaching Karate in mainland Japan.

Choshin Chibana had to ask three times before being allowed to train, whilst skipping school to do so.

Back then, Karate wasn’t just a fighting art, it was a cultural heritage, a knowledge that linked Okinawa to China, and a practice that could bring about physical, mental and spiritual strength.

During this time teachers of Tode expected loyalty to the training, to honour the practices and ensure they are passed on correctly, and an exchange of energy and time from the students shown by completing household chores and errands.

The passing on of Tode was highly selective, with Sensei only passing on true knowledge to students who had spent enough years practising and could prove to be of good intent.

“One Kata, three years” states Funakoshi Gichin recalling the hours spent practising at his Sensei’s house whilst it was still dark until it was time to attend school or work that day.

Back then, learning Tode was worth a lot more than it is today.

Having the knowledge of Tode was something you would pass down to future generations within your family.

Motobu Choki’s brother, Motobu Choyu, was taught the family style of Udun-Ti and then Shuri-Te from Matsumura Sokon, to later become the main teacher to the last Ryukyuan King - Sho Tai.

Tode could provide you with good health in the present, as well as provide a better chance of good health in the future.

It provided mental clarity, strengthened bones, helped make supple joints and most importantly, it could mean the difference between life and death if you should ever be attacked.

The story I made up was a reflection of the state of Karate after the dissolution of the Ryukyuan Kingdom, and the eventual fall of the aristocracy, who had relied upon pensions from the state.

Karate had been the practice method of the elite, to help safeguard the king, the country and the trade network that the country relied upon.

It then became a method of passing on culture and health to a citizenship now locked into a battle with an overreaching power attempting to homogenise its domain.

In post World War II it became a method of securing good relations between Japan and the world, and for many Okinawan people a skill that could be traded for food and security from the stationed American Army.

All through this time not once has money been at the forefront of exchange.


Some might believe that allowing money to come into the business of teaching martial arts will harm the practice, allowing the seeds of greed to take over from the honest teaching.

However, in truth, it was because for a long time, exchange of money either wasn’t necessary, or available.

When Karate was the practice of the bureaucratic elite, it was passed on as part of the network of knowledge required to secure their place as that elite class, and was paid for using the funds supplied by the King and from land ownership.

In essence, the same way a medieval knight would practice how to fight, to protect the land that others worked on to grow crops.

During Funakoshi Gichin’s childhood the Pechin class was no longer the high paid class it once was, and in order to modernise they were required to take up work.

It wasn’t well paid, and owing to Okinawa being the poorest of the prefectures, the most that could be given in exchange of lessons would be time and energy.

Today; none of this is the case for the majority of individuals wishing to learn.

You either have work which pays enough to be able to pursue other interests, or your not paid enough and are too poor to have free time dedicated to what is considered “useless on the streets” and outdated.

It is a shame that Karate never looks to compare itself to other arts and skills throughout history and the present.

If a Personal Trainer was asked to show people how to lift weights, run, jump and stay healthy, would they ask for nothing in return?

If a musician, who has paid for professional tuition, and spent many daily hours practising their skills was asked to perform so that others could enjoy, would they not ask for payment?

When you enter a shop and see glassware, plates and ornamental pieces on display, handmade by the owner, who spent hours learning and refining their skill, there are prices reflecting that time spent on making each piece.

Money is not evil, or dirty, or the factor in developing a person’s greed.

It is the tool used for which people can trade their time, skill and efforts with others.

No industry works on a basis of passing on specialised knowledge and services for free.

They can of course offer places for reduced fees, and scholarships for the most disadvantaged.

Did you know that Yogi’s spend a lot of time and money completing training and certification to ensure that they can pass on correct skills and knowledge?

When they themselves teach that knowledge they charge accordingly, ensuring that they can continue to train themselves and not dilute the practice.

A sliding scale can be employed whereby those with less means to pay can contribute a lower rate or in some other way.

Whilst I trained in Australia my monthly fees were reduced after a certain time but I also contributed more time to helping to teach class and help out at events.

Karate is no different from other specialised skills; sure their are the Karateka who have simply turned up regularly to class, followed their Sensei’s teaching and end up becoming a Sensei at a branch Dojo.

They work 9-5 and as their pastime train and teach, to the best of their ability.

What about those who choose to do more than just train in their spare time?

Those who choose to spend their full time training themselves, and the rest of their time teaching.

Those who put in the time and effort to ensure their knowledge is kept up to date, current, useful and better developed for their students.

Those who put down time and money to improve the world of Karate beyond that of knowing 26 Kata and the Japanese names of technique.

American Musician Jascha Heifetz said

“If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it”


“There is no top. There are always further heights to reach.”

To put it in Karate terms, those who dedicate more time and effort to learning, are better able to train others; considering of course they are also good teachers.

Which leads me to my last point.

Karate today needs to change.

It has to become more specialised if it is to keep up with the many other physical pursuits on offer.

Karate used to be the pursuit of Japanophiles looking to be a part of a well promoted culture and history.

The ideals of Bushido were written and promoted to the West to enhance the opinion about Japan.

The ideals of Budo were promoted to create strong military like loyalty towards large organisations who spent thousands sending young Karateka worldwide to spread their influence.

This promotion of “tradition” and history has meant that Karate has been on the continual search for the “original” training methods, manuals and techniques in order to feed the wants of what was once the main audience.

Whilst other martial arts have gone through natural stages of evolution, developing better training methods, better processes towards progression, and the utilisation of the most up to date knowledge present, Karate has fallen behind because of its quest to maintain “tradition”.

It is understandable how this happened.

Two generations of a culture saw their home, life and society being ripped apart; with the history, knowledge and skills from many generations being removed, altered and destroyed.

And where some continued to innovate the art, many sought to preserve it.

In order to ensure that this knowledge wasn’t lost, Karate was made easier for the masses, was morphed to fit with government agendas, and passed on cheaply from those desperate to survive.

Today we have Karateka who suffer from obesity, poor joints, weak bodies but with a strong loyalty and faith in what they are being taught.

They are unable to receive all the knowledge to help them from these weaknesses as the Sensei themselves have not enough time to dedicate to learning those skills.

It takes a great sacrifice at present for a Karateka to dedicate their life to the art, as others had before them, even though that sacrifice is no longer necessary.

In Okinawa, Sensei are still charging very little for their knowledge and when putting on displays, and many take advantage of that generosity.

Okinawan Sensei have such a wealth of knowledge that is being lost to the fact that there hasn’t been sufficient value placed upon its teaching.

Jesse Enkamp stated how many Okinawan Sensei have other jobs and live in small apartments despite having a large number of students visiting them internationally.

Many students don’t realise that the skills being taught have long lasting benefits, for themselves and their family for generations to come.

So consider the value of what you are gaining from a practice that is old, lucky to survive, and, if taught correctly, can provide you with some of the best skills for living a full and healthy life.

The latest biography on Bruce Lee writes about Bruce struggling to make it as an actor, washing dishes in San Francisco Chinatown and teaching the odd class of kung fu to other martial artists.

Despite his growing notoriety Bruce struggled to pay his bills and provide for his family, partly due to overextending himself, but also because he initially never charged a lot for his teaching.

He set a high physical standard from his students, some of whom would give up, but there were many who knew that what they were being taught was very special.

After reading a number of self help books and gaining advice from others, he decided to charge more and would become the Sifu to Steve McQueen, Chuck Norris and other high profile US martial artists.

He did eventually produce what would have been just the beginning of a huge career in Hollywood which was sadly cut short.

If you had the opportunity back then, or now, to learn from Bruce Lee, to be able to go round to his house and have him guide you through your practice, how much would you be willing to pay?