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Practical Karate and the Limits of Modern Shotokan

Gichin Funakoshi doing some Shotokan techniques during kumite

So much of modern Karate is far from practical like the traditional masters taught, especially the Karate of Gichin Funakoshi. Self-defense skills are of minor importance in many schools, and rank codes have become too important. That endangers karate students and leads to delusions. By Jeff M. Christian (Instagram: @jeffshotokan)

“A path is made by walking on it.”

Zhuang Zhou

I believe in Karate. Real karate. Practical Karate. Traditional Karate. I want to practice the Karate that Funakoshi Sensei practiced in Okinawa for practical self-defense.

The picture shows Jeff Christian the author of practical karate article.
Jeff M. Christian analyzes the limits of modern Shotokan Karate

For the most part, I love my training. I am in the dojo four-to-five times a week. I train hard, and take Karate seriously as a discipline of mind, body, and spirit. But the way many dojos operate set people up for disappointment, and even danger. Therefore, I will make four observations, and offer four solutions.

1. Practical Karate Requires Full Contact

Too much of our training in contemporary Karate lacks one key ingredient: Full contact. We punch at the air. We kick at imaginary opponents in front of us, beside us, and sometimes behind us. In kumite drills, we make some contact, but we have to be careful. We are instructed to exercise “control.” Unfortunately, “control” often means, “pull your punches.”

I had this realization recently when my son and I decided to take an introductory Krav Maga class. Krav Maga is a combatives based fighting system. Not so much a martial art as it is a way of defending by attacking. I told my son when we were finished that I would describe the experience as “Full Contact Crossfit.” Trust me when I say that I mean no disrespect in that statement; actually, I mean quite the opposite.

It was a great workout, involving full force punches into a thick pad held firmly by your partner. Knees to the pad. Punches to the pad. Full contact. Hard as you can hit. 

The Lack of Pad Training in Modern Shotokan

Now keep in mind that I have practiced some form of Karate or martial art since I was nine years old. I have grown children now, so let’s just say that I have been at this a while. But because many of my punches and kicks have been directed at my imaginary friend instead of an opponent with a thick pad, my wrists and arms were incredibly sore the next day. Despite some training with a Makiwara and a heavy bag, nothing prepared me for punching a pad a hundred times at full force.

I mentioned my sore arms and wrists to a Karate friend of mine. He suggested, “Well, you were punching the bag wrong.” I suppose that is possible, but I do not think so. I am usually careful to punch with good form the majority of the time. I think instead that I am not training enough with full contact. My suspicion is that I am not alone in this. 

Practical Karate Requires Full Force

Furthermore, we need opportunities in training with opponents attacking at full force and full speed. Obviously we cannot train at such intensity, or people are going to get injured. We have to be realistic. With gloves and pads, along with using handheld bags and pads, we can simulate the need punch with greater force. Still, the occasional bruise is to be expected. 

What if we train a couple of times a week outside the dojo to punch a Makiwara? We need to practice our kicks and punches on a heavy bag. Otherwise, we may believe that we will be able to use Karate in a self-defense situation if the need arises.

2. The Super Hero Delusion

We imagine street fights in the dojo. Our senseis show us techniques to counter punches to the face, kicks to the groin, and multiple opponents. It looks great. But in a real world situation, will these training sessions actually work?

Practical Karate is not Choreography

Rory Miller in his book, Meditations on Violence, offers the most realistic answer to that question. Unless we understand the way the mind and body freezes under stress, a thousand kumite drills will be of no use to us whatsoever. You know the drill. A training partner comes at you at medium speed, and you know exactly what he is going to do. Step forward, punch to the chin. You, in your carefully choreographed kumite technique, step back with the correctly corresponding foot. Cross your arm in front of your body while you raise it just over your head. Open your torso forty-five degrees. If you open it fifty-five degrees, that will probably work, but you should strive for forty-five.

Granted. If you practice this technique for twenty years with multiple opponents at least three times a week, it will probably work in an emergency. I want to make clear that I make this observation as someone who practices such techniques multiple times a week. My criticism is not from the outside, but from deep inside the dojo. But my concern is simple: Will it work?

The picture shows three books which were highlighted in this article. The foster a practical karate approach.
The three books highlighted in this article.

Shotokan Karateka are not Invincible

Our delusions of invincibility complicate this. We are led to believe that if you just practice enough, that you will be able to disable your opponent and walk away unscathed. We fantasize about being Bruce Lee or Yip Man, when in reality, even on our best days, we are more like Jackie Chan’s outtakes. People bump their heads, get hit by opening doors, and slip in the rain. Have you ever been in a street fight? No one walks away without getting hurt.

Even in a controlled dojo setting you are going to get bruised, perhaps cut. You may get a broken toe from time-to-time, even when you know what is coming. No one is invincible 100% of the time. I was doing sparring drills with one of my senseis recently. This sensei emphasized to me just a few months earlier the importance of deepening and extending my front kicks. While we sparred, I landed a few kicks to his midsection, even though he was supposed to be blocking me. We were not applying full force, but we were moving at pretty decent speed. He said, “Man, you are kicking deep today.” I replied, “It’s what you taught me.”

Practical Karate Knows No Delusions

I hope this illustration makes the point that even a fantastic Karate teacher has his limits. We all have off days, and we cannot possibly think that we will block every punch or kick that comes our way. Thus, the solution to the super hero delusion is to forget about it. Give it up. No amount of training is ever going to make you totally invincible. In fact, by not giving into such a delusion you are protecting yourself from future harm, and hopefully avoiding a fight that probably should have never happened in the first place. 

If, however, you find yourself in a fight, your training is going to serve you better if you have been hit, if you have been kicked, and if you have trained under stressful conditions. Unfortunately, most of us do not engage in this kind of training until we are adults. Just because you are a brown belt or a black belt does not mean you can handle every situation.

3. The Rank Delusion

A green belt has finally gained a decent understanding of kata and kihon. She is getting fairly good at the choreography of introductory kumite drills. Practices are becoming more natural for her, which is a big motivation. She keeps training for a couple more years, and finally gets her brown belt. She is on the way to her goal of becoming a black belt. But she is twelve years old, and some of the kids at school hear her talking about her karate skills. They start picking on her in the locker room after gym class. A few minutes later she walks to the nurse’s office while pinching her bloody nose after taking a solid punch from one of the other girls. “What happened to all of those drills that were supposed to keep me from getting hit? I am a brown belt, after all,” she thinks to herself. 

Rank According to Self-Defense Skills

Part of this is our fault in our dojos. Rank used to be a sign of years of dedication and training, strength and agility, athleticism and artistry. It still is in some circles. In my own dojo, you will devote five-to-ten years to get to the point where you are ready to test for black belt. But even so, many dojos no longer emphasize the self-defense side of Karate. And unfortunately, many dojos give rank according to the number of years a student has been coming to class, but not always according to true skill level. This is especially true when it comes to self-defense. We may allude to such things as street fighting techniques at times, but it is not the main focus in many dojos.

Students Want Practical Karate

Which is odd. Ask most Karate students across the levels of experience and they will usually answer the same way when asked why they take Karate: fitness and self-defense.

When I trained in Kyokushin back in the early 1990s, we had four belts: white, green, brown, black. If you wanted a green belt, you had to commit about two or three years to serious training. A green belt was a sign that you had put in your time to learn the fundamentals. You knew your basic kata, and could free spar without getting beaten to death. I think about my green belt in Kyokushin back then when I see many black belts today. Some of them do not have to go through what we went through in the 90s to get a green belt.

If you were a brown belt in Kyokushin in the early 1990s, at least in my dojo in West Texas, you were solid. Only a few brown belts populated our training sessions, most of whom you did not want to spar with because they still had something to prove. And black belts? We had three, and all three were our senseis.

Ranks vs. Traditional Karate?

I am not necessarily suggesting that we go back to such a rigorous ranking code. But I will suggest that we need to be stricter than current norms about our guidelines for rank if we expect rank to mean anything. After all, rank and belt colors are a new phenomenon when it comes to the traditional way of Karate. 

Although probably not the best business model, in order to preserve the true way of Karate-do, we should not give brown and black belts to children and young teens. That is not going to be a popular belief among many dojos, especially with so many small businesses struggling to stay in business these days. But since this is a martial art and not a mere sport, we need to take seriously the implications of Karate for the future by respecting the past. We will enhance Karate as we hold to a more challenging set of standards so that a black belt is not something guaranteed, whether by a two year contract or by the promise of merely showing up to class for a set number of years. 

The picture shows Jeff Christian during Karate class doing a Mae Geri. Jeff promotes a practical Karate approach.
Jeff Christian doing a Mae Geri.

Practical Karate Means Self-Defense

Furthermore, we need to teach more self-defense applications. Our students should be accustomed to fighting under stressful situations, no matter the rank. For children, we need to teach these things, but also the character necessary to be able to avoid fights completely. Anything we can do to stop the kind of bullying described in the opening story of this section will be a good thing. And again, that has nothing to do with rank.

In what is often called “The Master Text” in the evolution of Karate from hidden path to the way available to everyone, Gichin Funakoshi’s work, Karate-Do Kyohan, is a good place to start in order to understand the importance of the full way of Karate that includes athleticism, artistry, and a path of the spirit. And it is just that: A path, a way. “Karate-do” means, “The Way of the Empty Hand.” 

4. Karate As More Than Exercise

Along with self-defense, fitness is often named as one of the primary reasons individuals practice Karate. I am among those who give that reason. Out of all the athletic endeavors I have done, including marathon running, triathlons, hiking, and open water swimming, nothing gives me a better workout than Karate.

That said, Karate is more than exercise, more than sport. It is a way. It is a path of mind, body, and spirit.

Practical Karate Requires Understanding

Can you execute a perfect Yoko Geri? Good. 

Do you understand the Yoko Geri? Is it clear why it is not important that you can kick much higher than your torso, and why you should not lean back during the kick, regardless of how great you may look in the picture? Understanding is more than physical practice. 

Have you spent years disciplining your spirit, clearing your soul, cultivating the virtues of bushido like courage, honor, and respect? This is another matter altogether. As children in the dojo, we bow at the threshold because our senseis tell us to bow. As more seasoned karateka, we bow at the threshold because we hold in our hearts all those before us who have walked the path of Karate-do.

The True meaning of a Black Belt

A black belt is not a sign of mere physical ability after an allotted number of training sessions. A black belt is a symbol of years of dedication an individual devotes to shaping their whole person, the whole karateka. If you ever meet a black belt who is pompous, arrogant, and rude, then you have not met a true karateka. Instead, you met a person whose training derailed somewhere along the way. Status overtook the most important factor in his or her journey: Character. They forgot the first principle of Karate-do as stated by Funakoshi Sensei: “Karate begins and ends with character.” They learned to ignore the truth of the first thing we say in the Dojo Kun: “Seek perfection of character.”

In Joe Hyams’ book, Zen in the Martial Arts, he explores many topics related to Karate as more than mere exercise. His chapter “Anger without Action” makes the point far better than I can. Training in the martial arts is a process of learning self-control, of not acting out of frustration or anger. This progression takes years, even decades of practice simply to understand. Even those of us who have basic understanding of self-control admit to ourselves daily that it is an ongoing struggle. 

Practical Karate and Traditional Karate

As much as I appreciate contemporary approaches to self-defense, this devotion to the virtues and “Spirit of Karate” is a key missing ingredient in many combatives systems that are so popular. We karatekas can learn from their emphasis on practical applications. However, we must let that motivate us to preserve our roots. And while contemporary Karate has more to offer than self-defense, we admittedly may need a reawakening in a area of virtues starting with character formation.

Most of us will never be in a real street fight. That is a good thing. If we never have to “use” Karate, then what is the point of all the training? The point is the process. We enter the long journey of the whole person, and the ways we are shaped as people of Karate-do. We train our physical bodies. Our minds expand as we memorize and focus. We practice virtues in and out of the dojo. The karateka is a karateka whether he or she is in the dojo or not, whether he or she is with a sensei or not, wherever one happens to be on this ongoing path, the authentic way of Karate-do.