The designation of the era’s of karate study that I’ve described previously originated with Charles Joe Swift, the Mushikan Dojo instructor in Tokyo, Japan.
Those eras are defined by me as follows.
The Classical Era
The classical era is roughly karate on Okinawa pre 1900 or pre 1920 (I prefer the 1900 designation myself).
Ther e were no styles or schools, just instructors. Later designations such as Naha-te or Shuri-te or Tomari-te had nothing to do with the instruction, but were the first attempts to try and classify something as an explanation for outsiders, and that was by tradition totally non-verbal.
Classical Karate had no organizations, no rank, no uniforms. Classical Karate for the most part even had no technical vocabulary, the hallmark of a closed society. The structure of the training was totally directed by the instructor and most agree it changed for each individual students needs.
The beginning of the end of the classical era was perhaps the movement to begin training secondary school students (high school) in karate as preparation for surviving the military draft. The defining event was the creation of Itosu’s Pinan kata designed for large group training by breaking the classical kata studies down to more digestible bites for the large group.
BTW most of the karate schools we’re aware of have nothing to do with Classical Karate. A few examples, there was no Goju in the Classical Era. Okinawan Uechi-ryu didn’t exist in the Classical Era, nor any of the other systems we know. There was just Tang Hand.
Even the origin of Tang Hand, whether built from older Okinawan traditions, whether imported from Chinese traditions has absolutely nothing documented to prove any of the oral histories. All late documentation is based on various oral traditions and logical proof, none of which are definitive.
The Traditional Era
The Traditional Era really began with the export of Okinawan Karate to Japan in the 1920’s. The early books published in the 20’s and 30’s, mostly attempts to document the validity of Karate for the Japanese martial establishment, were all trying to describe training in the Classical era. But as new instructor’s were developed the Traditional art took on new artifacts, new traditions, more structured approaches to training. Systems sprang into existence (Interestingly the progenitor of the Traditinoal period, Funakoshi Ginchin, never wanted his art to be referred to as Shotokan (a nickname adopted by his students) but wanted it to be more generic to keep ALL karate unified. Just a dream of course but that was his wish, and being good students all of his student ignored his wishes for many reasons).
When most talk of returning to traditional karate, think what they mean. Organization’s, Rank, Uniforms, formal dojo procedures, formal training procedures, etc. None of which really described anything in the Classical Era. In fact a lot of karate developed in the Traditional period was to work students through a University education and then to move out to conquer the world as Japan expanded. Of course that part didn’t’ work out the way they expected.
BTW the designations have absolutely nothing to do with the fact kata and type of study changed. The older tradition was karate moved as the instructor willed it. The admonishment continued (Never change the Kata) to the student, but all instructors, all the time always know that rule never applied to them and even when their instructor taught that to them, they were bound to ignore it, and they being good karate-ka did so.
The organizations arose, the JKA (Shotokan), Goju-Kai and all the rest. New arts formed Shito-ryu, Wado-ryu, etc. And more interestingly they immediately began calving, people breaking away and forming new organizations. The groups remain focused on themselves but Funakoshi once remarked attending an event and seeing styles and instructors (master) he never new existed. This knowledge wasn’t shared openly but was the harbinger of the modern era.
This period of time pre 1950 doesn’t really describe Okinawa’s karate, which continued in much of it’s Classical Era ways. But the influence of the Traditional began to enter, uniforms, more Instrutor’s training youth in school clubs, styles beginning to be formed such as Goju, Tou’on, etc. The classical styles started looking wider than just their group training. Their efforts were interrupted by the Japanese war experience, ending with a huge percentage of the Okinawan Karate seniors destroyed, most practitioners unable to practice for years and the survivors, in a terribly depressed post-WWII Okinawa having to work to pick up the pieces. It is a strong testament to their art that they worked to preserve it.
The Modern Era
The modern Era begins approximately 1950, again which is arbitrary. This was the period of time the Okinawan’s got it. They understood the American’s were to return control of Okinawa back to Japan in 1972 and in turn worked to adopt many of the traditional styles trappings. Organizations formed, schools formed, Rank was adopted, Uniforms and other Japanesee style trappings started fitting into their arts.
Consider Miyagi’s Goju, an art which was modified from his Classical Era studies, he never awarded anyone a black belt. When he died his students all adopted the Dan ranking (which their instructor did not believe in) as were most of the Okinawan groups at that time. The idea of General Styles on Okinawa Shorin, Goju, etc. is a nice myth, but while a loose structure did arise, each dojo remained unique, similar and very much dissimilar to others in their group. And with organizations came the same calving.
The arts began to look outside. Instructor’s taught the Amerian military occupation force, who then exported karate with mostly no oversight or controls to much of the rest of the world. In similar fashion the Japanese variation of the Okinawan arts likewise were exported.
On Okinawa 1972 and Japan’s return to control meant a lot of work as Japan invested in the Okinawa infrastructure, and many karate-ka, now working no longer had as much time to train. But in the early 80’s a more starting event began, training young people began in Ernest. Today 75” of the practicing Okinawan karate-ka are youth.
As an example of the Modern Era I would submit Isshinryu. It’s founder Shimabuku Tatusu studied what are a combination of Classical era traditions (the arts of Kyan and Motobu) and Traditional era traditions (the arts of Miyagi and Taira) and developed one of the early Modern Era Traditions. He often shifted the shape of his art to the student in a classical tradition, but his art exported to the world, and all of the other factors continued for it to grow, calve, etc. After his death his art continued on Okinawa, but for the large part it became a new tradition.
The modern era as it exported world wide, began to realize there were no true lasting traditions behind many of the traditional trappings they assumed. The best example is that of styles calving and rank-flation. The world not realizing that this had really occurred from the origins of the original disporia into Japan, found out there were really no rules and in turn taught each generation of students to take a step further. So everyone’s a Master, everyone’s a Grand-Master, everyone can form a group, a system, a style.
Most fun the past can’t be proven, so anyone can claim anything, true or not, and no one can really prove it.
The modern era contains arts such as Matsumura Seito (and all variations) by a Classical trained artist (Soken) who bypassed the traditional era living in South America and began teaching in Okinawan in the Modern Era. With of course all of the modern trappings but strongly suggesting that art was based on classical traditions. And after his death that art began calving, mutating (the only correct word for all arts changes), rank flation, etc.
Going on the listing is endless
The Current Era
Simply stated the Current Era is whatever happened in the past 10 years. It keeps moving forward and the truth is that it always is the most explosive time in all of the arts histories. Whether Current began 1890-1900 or 1940 to 1950, or 1980-1999 or todays 1998 to 2008, that is always currently correct.
The current period is always based on the prior Era’s and the one’s living in that era doing what they honestly believe is best for them. Frequently they reject the past and strike out in new directions.
The other unalterable truth is that the future will frequently dismiss their efforts having their own current concerns.
As an example do all of today’s Master Instructors, Renshi, Kyoshi, Grand Masters, etc. honesty believe in the future anyone will pay any attention to the distinctions they made.
Long ago I defined a Master as anyone remembering their name 25 years after they’ve died, and a Grand Master as anyone remembering the name 50 years after they’ve died.
Few dispute that Miyagi, Kyan or Funakohsi (and all their contempories) have beome Grand Masters in our minds, and the next generation of greats are working to ward that status.
But with millions of Masters alive today, the future, out of necessity, will just ignore their existence. Their students will make them but footnotes in their histories after all, because they’ve focused on their own master-hood.
But I look on each ending generation fondly, admiring what they accomplished and have no problem with all of a generations survivors looking at each other, admiring each others efforts and referring to themselves as masters. They earned the right, they lived the art, did what they had to and in the end, earned the right to respect each other fondly.
Everything is a matter of scale.
I’d like touch on one small aspect of this timeframe. There is one place that the older traditions may have continued with little change (or perhaps scaled less change) that of Brazil (and others in South America). Last weekend Brazil celebrated 100 years of Japanese/Okinawan immigration. Karate continued in Brazil almost the entire time, within their communities (and eventually to trusted Brazilian friens). They didn’t’ suffer WWII and it is extremely likely the Okinawan traditions there are among those remaining closest to the classical era. It was in this community Soken studied with while in South America those many years.
Of course they not exporting their arts, not looking for outsiders to get their knowledge, keeping true to older traditions totally lost in today’s world, keeping their mouths shut about what they do, we can only speculate.
I do however predict, someone will find a way to exploit this, and that’s what it will be, another with lineage un-provable claiming those traditions.
All history discussions become endless. The truth is none of this really matters, our arts take place on the dojo floor (or in the forest if you have it). Whether I like your art or approach or not is irrelevant, if you get out of your studies what you want. That is the truth for all of us.