Karate in the Social Sciences

This is one of those blog posts that’s part ramble, part thinking aloud, and part asking questions that I don’t really expect answers to.

Many of my academically-oriented friends like to look into the scholarship on their hobbies. Medical and socio-cultural aspects of food, research in musicology, and particularly the history and politics of sports. Right now, near the end of the World Cup and the ongoing controversy surrounding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, interest in soccer politics and sport activism is understandably high. But while attempting to look into one of my own interests, martial arts, I’ve been able to come up with very little scholarly work. I expected there to be a good bit of work on the transmission of Karate from Japan, especially given how much we seem to associate martial arts with parts of Japanese culture. What does it mean when thousands of Americans, stationed in Okinawa following World War II, start exporting an integral piece of Japanese life? What happens when foreigners establish themselves as heads of “traditional Japanese” systems of martial arts abroad? I have become interested in this particular aspect of the sport/art/practice when my instructor, Doug Perry, was awarded a ninth degree black belt and the title Hanshi from the head of our system in Okinawa, Shugoro Nakazato. He was the first non-Okinawan to attain that rank and title in this fairly small and traditional system (Shorin-ryu Shorinkan), it places him firmly as head of the association in North America, and establishes his own “lineage” of sorts. The man has been practicing Okinawan Karate since 1956, and has spent incredible amounts of time training in Okinawa. But it does raise questions about the political, social, and cultural implications about the spread of Karate abroad.

Some other thoughts I’ve kicked around: What about research on the use of Karate in Japanese schools to instill a martial spirit during imperial expansion? What was the impact of the introduction of Karate from Okinawa to the Japanese main islands? Did the development of Karate and Kobudo (the use traditional agricultural tools as weapons) actually help the Okinawans against encroachment from the Japanese throughout the early modern period? I feel like there’s something out of the ordinary about the distinctly individual character of traditional kata, or forms, and the embeddedness of the traditional forms in communal culture, though I can’t quite formulate the right question. And it is curious that Karate has emerged as a true sport across much of the world, instead of becoming obsolete or at least antiquated as an expressive art. Compare, for instance, the place that sport Karate holds in Japan and the place that fencing holds in the United States. Fencing is certainly not obsolete, but it seems increasingly niche.

I’m just a little surprised that these questions — and much more insightful ones I don’t even have the background to ask — haven’t been addressed in scholarly literature. I’ve done quick searches of the major university presses and JSTOR and found exceedingly little other than memoirs by practitioners such as Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced Karate to the Japanese home islands. There is plenty about martial arts and fighting sports in physiology and medical science scholarship, but much less than I would have expected in the social sciences. I think it’s a field that deserves to be researched with rigor in academic work. It is curious why Western academia hasn’t approached the topic as much as other international sports. Is it the stigma, or at least stereotype, that Karate (and much of Japanese culture) seems to hold in the United States? Is it the vast range of styles and approaches, which makes it more difficult to study as a unified practice? I don’t know the answers, obviously, but I’m very curious to hear what other people might think.



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