A Fête Worse Than Death


Once more, my inspiration for this column comes from Saturday morning BBC Radio 4. This time, the excellent “From our own Correspondent”.
In the report in question, the journalist was illustrating that even in times of great social hardship, such as the current Afghan conflict (at the time of writing British, American and Coalition troops are engaged in “Operation Enduring Freedom) humour and light relief can be found. In this case the light relief came from, of all things, a martial arts demonstration.
“But no!” a million knee-jerk-defensives cry. “Karate is NOT funny. To mock the Japanese ritual, the pyjamas and the solemnity is a cheap shot. Don’t jeer at what you don’t understand!”
Well, let’s examine what the reporter found so amusing. Firstly, a group of Afghans dressed in an outfit emulating a traditional Japanese costume (the karategi) is an immediate incongruity. Secondly, instead of trying to solicit empathy from the audience, the demonstration team attempted to inspire awe and admiration. Pride, we all know, cometh before a fall. Next, it turned out the team were remarkably inept, and failed tameshiwari followed katana accidents which followed embarrassment and much flowing of blood. Next, the karate team were followed by a taekwondo team even more gauche and clumsy, and finally the “Keystone Martial Artists” wound up arguing and bickering amongst themselves- no doubt in disagreement over the supremacy of the one style over the other.
All very pathetic, and justly amusing, but what’s my point? It is this. The whole affair was predicated upon the premise that Far Eastern Martial Arts are of themselves worthy of respect, and interesting to the casual observer. Therefore the practitioners merely had to turn up and they would impress. Furthermore, such an attitude is reflected in karate clubs all across the world. And this premise is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!
Karate is seen by the masses as odd; weird, and by many, possibly antisocial. Like the American NRA; collectors of “True Crime” periodicals; loners who dress in army fatigues and play paintball games; and surfers of unarmed combat web sites, karateka are perceived to be only a small step from murderers, rapists and child abusers. One unsolved violent crime, and out comes “Cracker”, offender-profiling your average black belt, and the whole local dojo is rounded up for questioning.
So what do we do to correct this misguided view? Nothing. We promote it. Nip down to your average village fête to see the karate demo and you see the Afghan affair repeated time out of number. The script is already written...
“Good afternoon Ladies and Gen’men. Welcome to the Ko-ka Kola Karate Kai. Karate is an ancient form of self-defence, employed by the Samurai when disarmed on the battlefield in feudal
Japan. We would like to demonstrate today the awesome power and effectiveness years of diligent training can produce.” . ..“
There then follows fifteen minutes of the Sergeant Major black belt barking unintelligible commands to the ranks who wave their arms and legs, sort of in unison, occasionally shouting, in a strange calisthenic routine that bears little relation to any form of self defence. If any audience remain at the end of this routine, they are awakened by the black belt returning to the mike:
“Thank you ladengenmen. We would now like to demonstrate pre-arranged drills, or Kata. This element of training is often referred to as the “soul of karate”, and the students’ skills are all forged in the fire of hours of patient kata practice.”
Another fifteen minutes of what, to the uninitiated, looks exactly like what they have already endured. This is followed by some one step sparring, some free sparring, and a “self defence" routine where the assailant patiently positions himself such that he can be easily, and spectacularly, felled by his “victim"  in a most implausible “real street defence scenario”.
By now any vestige of interest has been wrung from all but the most devoted members of the audience. Bored and bemused, they start to shuffle off, when...
“And now la-gen-mn, we would like to demonstrate the power of karate. That is the strength of mind over matter. This is the power that allows the frightened six stone mother to lift a family saloon car from off her child when faced with danger. This inner power, or ‘Ki’ can be harnessed by training. We would like to show you how this manifests itself. Please note this sort of practice should not be tried at home.”
Out comes the masonry. Typically, it consists of strips of balsa, and Gyproc which is bending to almost breaking point under its own weight before the team have got their fists on it, or conversely rain soaked timber and housebricks which refuse to break and leave the tameshiwarists (is that a word? If not, I do believe I have just invented it. Dear O.E.D. . .) clutching at bruised broken and bleeding limbs, and limping off the green for a pint.
Is it any wonder we are thought of as misfits?
So why do we do demos? Why do we allow ourselves to be subjected to this freak-show indignity? What do we hope to achieve from it? Some, certainly, believe their own hype. These self-deluded egomaniacs leap at the chance to display their skills, believing that even their mediocre karate will look fantastic to the average punter. Well I’ve got news for them. The average spectator is a far more discerning beast than you give him credit for. Think of all the armchair experts whose sum total of experience comes from the flashing box in the corner of the sitting room; sportsmen, home decorators, style gurus, movie critics. They may not know why, but they know quality when the see it. So for their sakes alone we have a duty to entertain and inform.
Given also that we already have a bad enough press this is our opportunity to show what we are really about. In order to do that we need to be slick, interesting and polished. Only then will the message be given credibility. Replicating the average Wednesday night kids’ class will not do. If we can’t put on a piece of entertainment to be proud of, any message that we try to promote will simply be missed.
Ah yes, the message. What are we trying to say? For each of you it may be different, but for me it is this. Karate is not a weirdo fringe activity practiced by sociopathic thugs. Nor is it a vehicle for spotty oiks who can’t get a girlfriend, to develop some sense of self-esteem. It is a pursuit that embraces all human endeavour. Its practice exercises and develops the social, intellectual, physical and spritual qualities of the devotee. These are good and desirable qualities to promote. If you don’t think you can get these messages across to the general public take note. Next time the vicar approaches you to do a slot at his summer fête, tell him you’re washing you hair that day.
©Martyn Skipper December 2001
Martyn Skipper holds third dans in Henka Ryu and Shotokan karate but has avoided the constraints of style by exposing himself to many schools and styles in 25 years of training. He is currently practising Shukokai in
East Lancashire. To contact him for seminars, or to discuss any issues from his articles, email him on martyn@henka-ryu.co.uk