A Giant Game of “Telephone”: 3 Reasons Why Your Martial Arts Style is ‘Wrong’

“That’s not how it is done.”

“That isn’t how I was taught.”

“In my style, we do it like this.”


We all know the children’s game “Telephone”. The teacher says a phrase: “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” Someone else repeats it as, “There’s a bathroom on the right.” It finishes as something like, “Clean the bathroom and turn off the light.”

If you are an American and you are familiar with the 1969 Creedence Clear Water Revival hit, “Bad Moon Rising”, you probably know the funny alternate verse to one of the most popular refrains. Otherwise, the context and humor is probably lost on you.

Now imagine if you are on a small island and you don’t speak the native language, and you try to play this “telephone” game. Imagine the creative interpretations that you can have because you lack several basic items to translate the phrase correctly. You don’t know the language, the culture or specific turns of phrase that may be used in conversation.

In fact, I just learned the other day that my pronunciation of the Japanese work for “kick” (geri) is not pronounced as it is written in English! The word geri in Japanese is, in fact, diarrhea in English. So, while flinging poo may be a self defense strategy (monkeys do it after all), it is a bit messy, and martial arts teachers probably don’t want to have to clean that up. So perhaps we’ll stick with chudan maegeri (‘choo-dan my-Keri’) instead.

As we previously discussed, kata are a physical form of language that expresses the focus and philosophies of the people that taught them. And different teachers have different things that they focus on, even when they are all teaching from the same lesson plan. Of course, being good students, we like to follow our sensei’s lead as closely as possible.

But here are three reasons why copying exactly what our sensei does still leads to our martial art style being “wrong”.

Lost in translation

One of the simplest explanations of differences between styles is the variations in language. A well-documented example of this is the change of the pinan-series of kata to heian when Funakoshi Sensei imported his karate to Japan. The kanji for pinan and heian is the same… which means that the pronunciation and meaning of the words is different.

The Karate Nerd has a wonderful article on the history of the heian-series kata and how the name evolved to fit the circumstances in Japan.

So, if the naming convention of certain kata can be changed by simple variations of language across cultures within the same region, imagine how those differences are magnified when we begin to cross oceans.

Sensei got older

A theme that is emerging with a number of karate researchers is the idea of changing the karate to fit your own body. A person who is 6’3″ and 235 pounds will train very differently from someone who is 5’4″ and 140 pounds. And of course, the adversary has a say too.

The way someone teaches karate in their 30s will be different than in their 40s or 50s. Plus memory fades and things change as both our understanding evolves and our memories distort.

The video above is a brief explanation of the history of American Kenpo. (pronounced kem-po… why? because translation!) When the founder of American Kenpo, Ed Parker, passed away suddenly, there was a leadership vacuum and many of his former students rushed to fill the leadership void. Stylistic differences within the same style and with the same founder exist based upon when someone studied with Sensei Parker!

Of course, this issue is not unique to American Kenpo. It is prevalent in nearly every martial art system that has ever existed.

Different strokes

Let’s go back to the differences in size really quickly. Say you are a 5’2″ Okinawan karate master teaching young U.S. Marines your moves. They average about 6’0″.

Where are your hands when you are demonstrating blocking techniques to someone 8-inches taller than you?

Now… what happens when those Marines go home and begin teaching their own students? When they demonstrate a technique, their hands are higher than in other styles!

What to do…

As martial artists we have to come to terms and accept two very opposite ideas: the drive for standardization (or is it standardisation) and the need to customize our art to ourselves.

The standardization is our way of paying homage to the ones who came before us in life and preserving some of their memory in our very muscle and bone.

But standardization still needs to be put in its proper context, and the arts that our forbearers gave us must adapt to our times, places, circumstances and bodies.

What does this mean?

It means that your style is wrong because it is not an exact copy of what your sensei originally learned, or his sensei before him, or her sensei before her. Nor should it be.

Living things adapt… or they die.

Martial arts are often spoken of in terms of lineage, and this idea of sharing ideas, concepts, kata, and even cultural principles, is the same as the passing of DNA from one generation to the next.

Embracing the two opposite ideas of standardization and customization means to understand the principles of the philosophy and movement that your art is trying to convey (the general standards) and figure out how it best fits your body (customization). If you are fortunate enough to teach your art, try to pass along the general meanings of the art to teach your student why something is done in a particular way so that they may understand how it may be applied by them.

The goal of the Shindokai Kobujutsu Research Society is to join the efforts to restore information that was lost about the traditional Okinawan martial arts and elevate their status legitimate self defense systems that are applicable to our times. In some cases, we can piece together bits of information that is scattered around the world like a bunch of forensic historians. In other cases, we just have to experiment with concepts, just like the forbearers of karate did, and figure out what works (and then ditch the rest).

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