Saturday, June 12, 2010

Where's the kerrotty in "The Karate Kid"?

In the interest of disclosure, I haven't seen the remake of "The Karate Kid." I'll probably catch it at the Fun-Lan Drive-In next week depending on the weather.

But it's interesting to see the articles and commentary out on the 'net about the martial arts depicted in that movie. Already, people are up in arms over the fact that it's not the Okinawan-Japanese martial art of Karate but Chinese Kung Fu. They could have just as easily called it "The Kung Fu Kid" but they were obviously trying to capitalize on the name recognition from the classic 1984 movie of the same name.

Mr. Miyagi explains the Chinese origins of Karate to his future student, Daniel LaRusso.

At one time, I would have been one of those complaining. I used to get tired of trying to explain to people that I wasn't doing Karate (pronounced ker-rot-ty) while practicing a set from Yang Taiji, Wing Chun, Lion's Roar, Hung Gar or some siniwalis from Filipino Escrima, Kali or Arnis.

To just keep it simple, I'd just agree with them and say, "Yep. It's kerrotty."

Truth is, the word, Karate, has come a long way from its origins. At one time, it was one of several names for the martial art practiced by the Okinawan people. Other names include kenpo, tode and te.

In its original spelling, Karate used the Chinese characters for "China" and "Hand". The word denoted an art from the Chinese mainland with its origins in the T'ang Dynasty, as practiced by the residents of Okinawa. At the time, Okinawa was a Chinese protectorate. (See above picture).

Eventually, the Satsuma samurai conquered Okinawa, eventually annexing it for Japan. Karate was driven underground until the early 20th Century. As the art caught on in the Japanese mainland, Okinawan master Funakoshi Gichin changed the spelling of Karate to use the characters for "Empty" and "Hand."

It was during this time that the Japanese occupied Korea. They did a great job in suppressing and destroying Korea's culture, including its indigenous fighting arts of Taekyon and Kwanbop.

In addition, many Koreans were forcibly taken by the Japanese and conscripted into their armed forces or used as slave labor in factories. While in Japan, many of them learned Japanese martial arts. Upon their return to Korea, many of these masters blended arts like Shotokan Karate, Kendo and Daito-Ryu Aikijitsu with what remained of the indigenous Korean arts, creating blends like Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do and Hapkido.

Those arts came to be considered Korean Karate by both their respective founders, (like Gen. Choi Hong Hi or Hwang Kee) and by American servicemen stationed in South Korea.

Starting in the 1950's, when those servicemen came back to the U.S. following tours of duty, Asian martial arts became part of the American pop culture scene. It was everywhere from comic books to TV shows to movies. With only a few plateaus, the popularity of martial arts just grew and grew.

As a result, the word Karate (mispronounced as "kerrotty" by Americans, as opposed to kah-rah-tay in Japan) became catch-all word for any Asian martial art no matter its country of origin. More than that, many American and European martial artists created their own versions of Karate, inspired by the Asian versions of hand-to-hand combat.

So like it or not, Karate is now the generic word for "martial arts" in 21st Century American English.

We might as well get used to it.


  1. Great History lesson Sean. Although I consider myself "progressive" I still find it offensive for any martial art to be mislabeled. I do understand from a business perspective why the name had to stay Karate Kid but find it insulting to both Karate and Kung-Fu practitioners that the movie was titled as such. However that's Hollywood. Next thing you know they'll have some Caucasian play a Chinese Shaolin Monk roaming around the Old West. Go figure.

  2. Maybe I could be that caucasian. It could be the start of my film career.

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  4. Bah... I tend to be a purist about this issue. Although the term "Kung Fu" encompasses so many different styles that generalizations fall woefully short, I've found that body mechanics of kung Fu are just different from Karate. They're just not the same. The title of Karate Kid is just there to appeal to us nostalgic "old timers", and I'm not buying it.

    I wasn't aware of the close tie of karate to TKD and tang soo do until fairly recently. Learned the pinan shodan kata a few years ago and realized that it was quite similar to a form taught to me "on the side" by a TKD brown belt while I was in college. Was also comparing notes recently with a 4th dan TSD friend and found out that a number of karate forms are in their syllabus including the 5 pinan forms and bassai dài.

  5. Evan, Tony, you guys make a lot of great points. But the fact is, the word "kung fu" is actually slang for Chinese martial arts. Spelled with the characters for "time" and "effort", it denotes any high level of skill.

    Some more accurate terms for Chinese martial arts are: wu shu (martial arts) aka mo shr in Cantonese; ch'uan fa (fist fighting or boxing) aka kuen fat in Cantonese. Ch'uan fa/kuen fat is pronounced kenpo in Okinawan and Japanese or kwanbop in Korean.

    Yes, the historical links to Japanese Karate and Korean TKD and TSD are well-documented. Gen. Choi Hong Hi, TKD's founder, freely admitted this in his book "Taekwon-Do: The Art of Self Defense."

    My TSD grandmaster, the late Jae Joon Kim, told me that Hwang Kee did in fact study at the Shotokan.

    Speaking as a samdan in TSD, I can tell you that all but three of the forms in that art came directly from Shotokan.