After World War II Japan’s national efforts to prove the country’s significance and importance shifted from pre-war propagated martial success to economic success ― with Japan’s version of “common interest first” in its corporative and closely regulated domestic markets. The Japanese government heavily subsidized its own companies and created legal barriers for foreigners to enter Japanese markets. Parallel, Japan became a powerful exporting country and penetrated Western markets, taking over large market segments, e.g., for cameras, for consumer electronics, and, later, for automobiles. In this economic process Karate developed into a government supported sports-business of considerable size. 

In this text we do not look at Karate’s commercialization through “Americanization,” another branch of sport business selecting approaches from Asian martial arts and combining those for competition purposes, e.g. as Mixed Martial Arts, or as Kickboxing, because these new Western hybrid forms are usually not called ‘Karate’ as the Japanese Sports-Karate version are.

Japanese Sports-Karate evolved as a fascinating modern sport with its own purpose and reason to exist, as was the case with other sport derivatives of combat arts, like javelin, fencing, archery, and others. All these sports rightfully lost their initial martial purpose and established a new sport; however, there is no need to create a special philosophical superstructure for them. 

Nobody would claim that today’s sport of foil fencing, where only straight moves back and forth are allowed and where tags are sufficient to score a point, is equal to the ancient martial art of French or Italian musketeers. It is obvious that today’s sport of fencing is something newly created; and nobody assumes that it is the matching representation of its classic martial predecessor. The situation with Karate, however, is different. The Japan Karate Federation JKF and Japan Karate Association JKA still arduously associate the new sport with ancient roots; thereby twisting Karate’s history into a part of the mainland’s samurai and Bushido tradition, which it is not.

Karate-Jutsu Turns into Karate-Do

In a most comprehensive view, Karate-Do in its Japanized version may even be seen as the only way to practice martial arts in post-war Japan, after everything militaristic became highly suspicious and undesirable ― as well as the only commercially promising way to practice martial arts worldwide with regards to overall changed attitudes towards combat and violence. 

In his various publications the author, in line with other researchers, explains how claiming Okinawan Karate as a traditional Japanese martial art is of course correct in terms of governmental sphere, but is incorrect in terms of subcultural heritage. 

Mainland Japan has a different martial tradition; Japan is the birthplace of Bu-Jutsu, while Okinawa is the Birthplace of [Kara-] Te-Jutsu. It was only after a millennium of Okinawan [Kara-]Te that Japan discovered the fighting art of its province and started cultural integration efforts to make Karate a part of Japan’s martial history. In this Japanization process, Okinawan Karate-Jutsu transformed from a combat art into Karate-Do, into a recreational, health-related, and spiritual way, where Zen- and health-related super-structures became more important than the art's original self-protection purpose.

Karate-Do Turns into a Commodity

Using an approach which will not be a favorite point of view for many devoted practitioners, we may say in economics and business terms that Karate-Do was turned into a commodity. Especially in its Shotokan version, which represented its most prevalent style after WWII, the craft of Karate followed the typical path of industrialization by successfully matching the rationalization and distribution process of other crafts and services. Industrialization means that the initial “manufacturing process” of the craft, as an individually created non-physical good for selected recipients on Okinawa, was transformed into the production of a mass product, delivered to as many customers as possible worldwide. The supplier driven market structure of Okinawan masters transferring their art to a limited number of selected followers turned into a demand driven marked in search for a recreational product. 

Karate-Do’s industrialization is a path of standardization (standardizing moves, positions, and curricula), multiplication (certifying dozens of instructors in a 2-years-program to teach domestically and internationally based on standardized curricula), and large-scale-production (sending accredited instructors across the nation and all over the world to educate local students who then in turn open accredited dojo). This industrialization of Karate-Do created nothing less than a worldwide Karate inflation after 1950.

But how to turn the art of Karate, which cannot be claimed as an individual property, into a global commodity and into a global brand? How to transform the knowledge of local Okinawan fighting skills into a methodical, institutionalized Japanese produce where copyrights and financial interests of involved parties are protected? Karate is after all, economically speaking, a “common good”, it is a product which cannot be claimed individually as an intellectual property, hence cannot be issued a letter of patent.

At this point sophisticated legal, political, and economic strategies of Japanese Shotokan officials come into play after the Japan Karate Association JKA was founded in 1949 by some of Sensei Funakoshi’s dedicated students. Japanese Karate-Do was at that time predominantly represented by Shotokan Karate-Do. It therefore embodied identifying characteristics within the range of all Karate systems and thus allowed to overcome the “common good” status towards the status of an intellectual property. Funakoshi Sensei and his first student generation represent a stepping-stone; they gave birth to a new and specific version of Karate, different from its classic Okinawan origin. It was the modification of Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate-Jutsu into a recreational, health oriented athletic activity. It created a new Karate version with its own characteristics, apart from its initial specifications as a fighting art, which aimed at new groups of consumers who were rather interested in physical exercises and in personal improvement than in achieving fighting capabilities ― and which now was eligible for copyrights. In this sense, Funakoshi Sensei and his first generation of students are the “owners” of Shotokan, who successfully worked on the reproduction of a new, simplified Karate-Do style for new audiences.

Commercialization of the Commodity Karate-Do

That this entire development is based on business considerations rather than on preserving an ancient fighting art is supported by the fact that the Japan Karate Association was steered by alumni of the Takushoku University, who graduated in international-business-related subjects. The commercialization of Karate was achieved through an admirably sophisticated business path showing all the earlier mentioned criteria of industrialization, rationalization, standardization, and multiplication into large-scale-production, by which Japanese Karate-Do’s, i.e., especially Shotokan’s, unique selling position was established as a dominant supplier with vast market power.

The unique selling position of Japanese Shotokan Karate-Do is maintained through an effective “quality assurance system of owners and custodians,” both in charge of uniformity and consistency of teaching content, which served as a substitute for the inapplicable path of patenting the art. The core leaders are the Japanese “owners” of the Karate system; they are the ones securing the unchanged preservation of the style, and they are the only ones allowed to change anything. Hence, they are the ones owning exclusive control over knowledge and as such secure the style’s purity. This pyramidal structure is repeated internationally through “custodians”, i.e., through accredited foreign instructors.

Though Japan’s other Karate systems resemble an analogous, though less standardized, organizational structure, no other system came even close to Shotokan’s monopolistic position, neither in Japan, nor in other parts of the world. The aggressive sales strategy of sending out dozens of instructors as multiplicators and keepers bears fruit, as did the marketing strategy of exporting the art as a genuine Japanese martial art with all its Japanese budo symbols of rituals, ranks, dress code, and the use of Japanese terms in trainings, which together became an inherent ingredient of today’s Karate-Do definition. 

In the early 1980s the unique selling position of Japanized Karate-Do (with Shotokan as its prototype) was well established and further initiatives focused on stabilizing its market position and its organizational structure; on an effort which was remarkably successful in both, preserving its Japanese identity and protecting the copyrights and financial interests of the parties involved. 

The commodity Japanese Karate-Do was irrevocably worldwide positioned, initially as Shotokan through the Japan Karate Association, but soon followed by the other mainland Japanese Karate-Do styles of Shito Ryu, Wado Ryu and Japanized Goju Ryu ― including their combined claim to be a genuine Japanese martial art. The commercialization and industrialization of the craft was achieved and manufacturing runs hot in terms of successfully teaching standardized new Karate-Do systems. 

The above is an original article by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D. author of Analysis of Genuine Karate 2: Sociocultural Development, Commercialization, and Loss of Essential Knowledge, Publication Date July 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399244.