Super Dan Anderson: Your Style Doesn’t Matter


A jab flicks near Bruce Lee’s face. Lee ignores it.  A back fist flicks near the side of his head.  Lee turns his head, not the slightest bit amused and looks at Parsons.  

“What’s your style?” asks Parsons.

Lee replies, “My style?  You could call it ‘The art of fighting without fighting.’

Parsons pushes the matter.  “The art of fighting without fighting?  Show me some of it.”

Lee then embarrasses Parsons and we enjoy the rest of Enter The Dragon.

What the heck is all this style business about anyway?  We have grown up with taekwondo, Wing Chun, Tai Chi, Shotokan, Goju-ryu and so forth but does it really matter?

No.  Your style does not matter.  It doesn’t matter if your taekwondo is ITF, WTF, ATA or some hybrid style.

It doesn’t matter if your Shotokan whether it is JKA, Shotokai, ISKA, Funakoshi World Shotokan Association or what have you.

It doesn’t matter if your Tai Chi is Chen, Wu, Yang, Sun, Ng, or American Tai Chi (if there is such an animal).

Your style does no matter!

That’s a rather brash statement I suppose but hear me out.  Let’s roll back to a time before karate came out of the closet, back to the days in Okinawa when karate was taught behind closed doors away from the prying eyes of the Japanese.

Over 500 years ago the Satsuma clan from Japan invaded and took over Okinawa.  Okinawa was this sleepy little farming community, not really a military threat to anyone.  Prior to the Satsuma invasion the king of Okinawa had placed a weapons ban on the island nation.  Unless you were military you could not possess a weapon.  The Satsuma clan continued that ban after the takeover.  Instead of gun control they instituted “sword control”.  There was only one problem, however.  This was the caste system of feudal Japan.  Below the rulers there was a four tiered system in Japan.  They were, in this order, the samurai, peasants, artisans, and the merchants.  Only the Samurai could wield weapons and they could wield them with relative impunity.  If you showed the slightest disrespect to a samurai, he could take out his sword and chop your head off.  These are the guys who covered the behinds of cats who ruled Okinawa.  These guys were touchy, got offended easily, and carried rather large and very sharp swords.

Karate training went and remained underground.

During that time there were no big dojos, no fitness facilities, no Premier Martial Arts chain of schools or taekwondo centers in every city.  You had nighttime training in a teacher’s back yard.  Out of sight, out of the view of the Samurai was the key.  In this situation you had one teacher with maybe a handful of students.  One of them, at least, passed the art down to another handful of students and so on for several hundred years. Now and again you would get someone who travelled to China, learn something, and bring it back.  This was the paradigm for that time.

Fast forward to the late 1800s.  Commodore Perry forces Japan to open its doors to western trade.  Japan begins to enter the modern world.  This is the time of the Meiji Restoration.  The feudal caste system is abolished.  In other words, Japan begins to chill out.  The Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai” is a romantic portrayal of what was going on at that time but it is accurate enough for the purposes of this article.  An interesting factor in the development of karate was that Japan was no a peaceful neighbor.  They had designs on both Korea and China and now with this new foreign trade, they had far better weapons.  How does this factor in to the development of karate?  One of the karate masters of Okinawa, Yasutsune “Anko” Itosu, began teaching karate to middle school students in order to build their fitness so that they would qualify to join the Japanese military.  For those of you history buffs you might remember that Itosu was one of the principal teachers of Gichen Funakoshi, the founder of Japanese karate.  Itosu created the Pinan kata out of an earlier kata, Channan (and another which I don’t remember the name of offhand).  Karate came out of the closet.  It was now public.  The fascinating thing is that karate hadn’t crossed over into the style paradigm yet.  That was soon to come.

Going over this briefly, Crown Prince Hirohito witnessed a karate demonstration on Okinawa in 1917 and flipped out.  From karate historian Graham Noble’s article, Master Funakoshi’s Karate The History and Development of the Empty Hand Art Part I:

“Funakoshi sensei had actually made an earlier visit to Japan, giving a demonstration of the art in Kyoto in 1917. The circumstances surrounding this are obscure and I have never been able to pin down an accurate account. At any rate Funakoshi returned to Okinawa after a short visit, but from this time he probably had in the back of his mind the possibility of teaching karate in Japan. When Crown Prince Hirohito visited Okinawa in 1921, and a karate demonstration was given in his presence, Norikazu Kanna (the captain of the Prince’s ship and an Okinawan himself) (known as Kenwa Kanna, Seinenkai Editor) suggested to Funakoshi that such a fine art should be introduced to the Japanese mainland.”

Hirohito was impressed.  The old boys in Okinawa got together and hand-picked a teacher to go to Japan to begin to spread the art.  They needed someone who could impress and not piss off the Japanese. That someone they picked was a middle aged school teacher, Gichen Funakoshi.  Funakoshi was an educated and humble man.  This was the right guy, they figured, so he packed up and headed for Japan.  From the same Graham Noble article:

“Then in 1922 he travelled to the Japanese mainland to give a demonstration of the little known art of karate, and thus perhaps only half consciously, set in motion the development of the art as a major Japanese and worldwide Budo. That demonstration, The All Japan Athletic Exhibition held at Ochanomizu in Tokyo, was only scheduled for a week or so but after it ended Funakoshi stayed on, and as far as I’m aware, he never did return to Okinawa.”

He connected up with the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, impressed him so much that Kano invited him to teach at the Kodokan.  It was in the 1930s when the new paradigm for karate was established.

Japanese culture was based on kata.  Kata, simply stated, is a formalized or ritualized way of doing something.  The Japanese tea ceremony is a well-known example of this.  The tea ceremony has very exact steps in its performance and each step has to be done perfectly in order for it to be ‘correct’.  Hmmmm…sounds like how we were taught karate kata, eh?  Well, in order to be recognized by the Japanese governing martial arts organization, the Butokukan (or Budokan), one had to have a system or systematic way of teaching.  Up until then karate teachers taught…well, they taught karate.  It was what their teacher taught them modified by their own experiences.  It changed as they grew older.  It was never a static thing.  Until now.  

From an article How The Masters Got Their Ranks: “Actually, Funakoshi was greatly influenced by Jigoro Kano, aristocratic founder of judo, and originator of the dan/kyu system. Kano was a highly respected individual, and Funakoshi prided himself on being an educated and “proper” man who rightly believed that he was acting correctly. Kano’s system was not only being applied to judo, but to other budo as well under the aegis of the Butoku-kai and the Japanese Ministry of Education. Funakoshi, then, just adopted the order of the day: a ranking system officially sanctioned by Japan’s greatest martial arts entities. Funakoshi’s own rank was of no consequence, since it seems that belt ranking was really just something for the students, not for headmasters.

For its part, the Butoku-kai issued instructor’s licenses: the titles renshi (the lowest), kyoshi, and hanshi (the highest). It would be a while before the dan/kyu system became universal in karate.”

Now you had to have an actual ryu, a style, in order to qualify for recognition from this organization.  In America it would be like needing the Department of Education to sanction your karate/taekwndo/kung fu school’s curriculum.  Here is where a new paradigm was created for karate.  Over the years karate went from a handful of teachers instructing on a small island to way over hundreds of established styles of karate.  This is the paradigm that was introduced to the United States after the conclusion of World War II.

Fast forward to 1966.  When I was introduced to karate, I was taught Kong Su Do.  I found out much later that this style of karate was a Korean-ization of Shotokan karate.  Okay.  The key point is that I was taught that this was THE style of karate.  This was the best style of karate.  We were doing karate the ‘right’ way and everybody was…well, they meant well but they had it wrong.  Does that sound familiar to any of you reading this?  It should.  This is how karate, kung fu, and taekwondo was presented to the American public.  Why it was presented this way can be answered by a number of different reasons but that is not the scope of this article.  Let’s just say that it was and leave it at that.  A key point to make is that karate was Oriental and not western and this was a huge factor.  Styles of karate were proliferated. They were everywhere and each one was right.  This was the prevailing paradigm and to some extent exists to this day.  

Then the first crack in the paradigm happened.  What happened?  Chuck Norris got his butt handed to him in a tournament by a Tak Kubota student named Tonny Tulleners.  Norris was a Tang Soo Do stylist and relied chiefly on kicking.  Tulleners was a Japanese stylist who relied chiefly on hand techniques.  Tulleners smothered Norris’ kicks and spanked him.  What did Norris do?  Instead of going off and sulking, Norris sought out the best Japanese karate instructors to learn how to work his hand techniques.  Chuck Norris was one of the first cross trainers in the history of tournament karate.  The rest is history as he became the dominant force in karate competition up to his retirement in 1970.  Now everybody cross-trained.

By the middle to late 1970s everybody stepped outside the bounds of their ”traditional styles” to compete successfully in tournaments.  Then I did the unthinkable.  I wrote a book on free-fighting, American Freestyle Karate: A Guide To Sparring.  That wasn’t the unthinkable par.  In the forward I declared that AFK was more of a personal way of training, much like a boxing gym, rather than an Oriental style of karate.  Another crack in the paradigm.  By this time karate had become an American phenomenon and not just an Oriental one.  Couple this with innovations such as Joe Lewis’ 25 Fighting Principles, the Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace kicking method and the paradigm of free-fighting by karate style shattered.  Concepts and principles of free-fighting became the rule.  But…we still held on to the idea of “this style or that style” and it had to be done in a certain way, or at least the katas had to.

The next major crack in this still existing paradigm was how to teach karate.  There was this new idea called a rotating curriculum.  This was a very American idea.  Instead of teaching the style, you now had a curriculum.  Instead of teaching it in an A-B-C-D fashion, you could successfully teach it in an order whereby every student would get all the material despite when they joined the school.  Boy, if this was a departure from the Oriental mode, wait till you hear what happened next.  

The next and final crack in the karate style paradigm came from the concept of “servicing the public”.  In the olden days (1950-2000ish) the public came in to learn karate/taekwondo/kung fu.  The teacher taught what he/she was taught.  You liked it or you didn’t. Maybe you got what you were looking for and maybe you didn’t.  It was a crap shoot.  With groups like the Martial Arts Teachers Association and events such as The Main Event, service became the key.  What was a person looking for in karate?  Sure, he or she had seen the movies and read about the benefits and virtues of martial arts, but what was he or she looking for?  Did you provide it?  Did you know a damned thing about it or did you give it lip service?  Now it was time for the martial artist to look outside his training to find out how to develop those attributes in students within a martial arts framework.

The paradigm has now shifted.  What is needed and wanted by the prospective student?  Can you deliver it?  By this I don’t mean the current public school permissive trend of holding a student’s hand, giving them a participation trophy for just showing up to class, and then graduating a barely functioning illiterate just because feelings could be hurt otherwise.  I definitely don’t mean that.  What I do mean is that students come to us for a myriad of reasons, and with the exception of learning martial arts to wantonly injure people, each one is valid.  It doesn’t matter if it is for fitness, self-defense, a hobby, competition, or what have you. A person’s reason for learning martial arts is their reason.  It is as valid as the kind of car they buy or the restaurant they go to.

I‘ll give you two (out of many) examples of the new paradigm of martial arts instruction – Brannon Beliso’s One Martial Arts and Melody Shuman’s Skillz program.  Brannon teaches the art he learned from Prof. Rick Alemany (Shaolin Kenpo) using a rotating curriculum.  The progression of his curriculum is based on, how I would describe it, increasing the gradient of each level while maintaining a careful balance of A. challenging the student while B. neither overwhelming the student with too much nor boring the student with too little.  Back in the old paradigm we didn’t care if the student got bored or not.  Work through it!  And if the student felt overwhelmed, well, train harder, damn it!  We caused our own student drop offs with this attitude.  If one thinks about it, this new paradigm makes sense.  Why take the interest of the student and ten blunt it to a point to where he/she is no longer interested anymore?  Beliso now has one school with over 600 quality students (that is the key word here, quality) in one location and a newer school which is rapidly approaching 300 students.  

The other example I am bringing up is Melody Shuman’s Skillz program.  She is coming at teaching marital arts totally from a different direction.  She has dumped using a style of karate (or in her case, taekwondo) and trying to fit an educational process inside it and has reverse engineered it.  Shuman is intensely interested the development of the youth of America and the world.  She has researched child development for decades and through this research, has formulated a curriculum that fits a child’s stages of development as they grow older.  She has delineated what a kid responds to at any given age, how a kid best learns at any given age, how a kid’s muscular development is at any given age and so on and bases her martial arts curriculum around this.  She uses karate/taekwondo techniques coupled with the fruits of her research to best teach kids.  Now how is that for a different martial arts approach!

This is a new age of martial arts.  Martial arts are an American phenomenon and not just an Oriental cultural import.  We Americans pride ourselves on innovation to make anything better.  It doesn’t matter whether if it’s in car manufacturing or farming or microbrew beer brewing.  We want to make things better than they were.  That’s the American way.

What style do you teach?  It doesn’t matter anymore.  Are you doing the best for your students?  That matters greatly.

Prof. Dan Anderson

*paradigm – definition: a typical example of pattern of something, a model

PS: if you like this article, visit for more information.