Mention the word “Karate” to a member of the general public and in all likelihood, it conjures up a mental image of something like free sparring in a competition or maybe breaking bits of wood. Among practitioners of the art, there is an even greater divergence of meaning with ideas such as self-defense, sport, personal development, and even spirituality.
This variance is not surprising as Karate has elements of all of these within it. Add to the mix the individuality each person brings to their training, and the results are many different flavors of each meaning.
Then there are the teachers. Each will instill certain of their own ideology into their students, adding further to the assortment of understanding.
With such a diversity of attitudes and beliefs, it would seem to be an impossible task to try and draw a common thread for the study of Karate.
I believe however that it is not as difficult as it may seem. There is one activity that permeates all Karate schools and training, almost without exception, and that is the study of kata (form).
– I appreciate that there are a great many Karateka who see the practice of kata as a pointless exercise, perhaps just something to get through that grading and on to the next. Yet others can only see the point of kata to be for competitions, while still more will see the benefits as cardiovascular or merely as an aesthetic movement.
There is, however, another common thread running throughout all Karate styles and schools, and it almost goes without saying. Karate is a fighting art, with an emphasis on striking the opponent.
With two common and fundamental features such as these, it would make a lot of sense if one feature had a significant link to the other.
It might surprise you to learn that kata does indeed have much more to offer the practitioner than is generally known.
As much as it would be useful, unfortunately, space does not permit an in-depth discussion of the finer points of this subject. The written word does not lend itself well to this purpose. The ideal circumstance would be a seminar or similar event. So instead, let us take a step back and away from the kata for the moment, to look at the basics (Kihon) taught in most Karate classes.
If I speak from my own experiences (and draw upon the many conversations I have had over the years with other practitioners) I would say that most of the basics taught would comprise teaching stances and the ability to walk in those stances. Next would be punching, blocking, and kicking (of various types) while moving forward and backward in the stances. Generally, turning is reserved for when you have run out of room in the hall and you want to go back the other way. Many teachers supplement basics with pad and/or bag work and possibly makiwara training.
Much energy is spent covering these basics. In the end, what does it all amount to? The practitioner learns to anticipate a Karate style attack, defends by applying a bone-crushing block, and then finishes off with a highly effective punch or kick. But when does the student get to cover the subtleties of body movement (Tai-sabaki) for use in avoidance, parrying, and close quarter work? When does the student learn about trapping, joint manipulation, locks, take-downs, and ground-work? When does the student even learn how to fall over without causing themselves damage? Are these things not fundamental to the real fight situation? If the answer to these questions is something like “after black belt”, then I suggest very strongly that this is about 5 years too late.
If Karate is meant to be about defending individual personal safety against attack, then how can this be achieved when the student is not trained in appropriate basic fundamental technique?
The student will not usually learn these things, because they don’t form part of the syllabus of the particular organization. I have to wonder why, but that is a discussion for another time. The fact remains that most Karate organizations only teach the student to punch, kick and block with any level of intensity. How useful is that to someone in a real situation? Well in answering my own question, I would say that some knowledge is better than no knowledge. But how can the usual Karate basics be of use when you never learned how to get out of a clinch, or a headlock. What about when you slip on the beer-drenched floor of a nightclub and find a bloke on top of you giving you a pasting! How useful is your reverse punch then?
Here’s another thought. If you think you can face off two, three, or more determined attackers in the car park using free sparring techniques, then think again. You will hit the floor faster than lead weights in a bath! You might get one good punch or kick in, but after that, your training lets you down, simply because you have never trained for this kind of scenario. Or you might be lucky and be facing attackers who are so drunk they don’t know which way is up!
Now let us return to the kata. It may surprise you to learn that even the basic Shotokan kata (Heian series) demonstrates a highly effective and well-rounded fighting system. When I deliberate on the 5 Heian kata (Pinan in some styles) I prefer to think of them as one complete kata of 115 moves. It contains most of the full complement of basics I discussed earlier (not just punch, kick and block), as well as a useful number of applications for all the most common attacks which might be encountered in a real situation.
It also adheres to a basic yet highly effective principle found in all fighting systems, namely:
- Neutralize the threat in some way.
- Cause your opponent to become disadvantaged.
- Finish the fight as quickly and decisively as possible.
There are numerous other principles within the practice of kata. All of which cannot be learned unless they are firstly understood by the teacher. For the last 80 years or so, the kata has declined as the centerpiece of Karate training and has been demoted to something of an empty shell. The reasons are many, but I feel the most significant one is that learning the kata and everything it has to offer is a very difficult road. It doesn’t fit in well with large classes, which have been the norm throughout the 20th century, as it needs to be tailored to the individual.
As a result, the knowledge that was once the fundamental core of Karate as a fighting system has dwindled with each successive generation. It is still strong in a few schools of Karate, but signs of decline are apparent even there.
This means of course, that if the knowledge is ignored, disregarded, or just forgotten, then Karate becomes something akin to the tin man from the story “The Wizard of Oz”. He was searching for a heart to make him human. He had the shape of a person, but he was still not the real thing.
Todays practitioners only have guidance from their seniors, who in turn was guided by their seniors, and so on. If at some stage the “heart” of Karate is lost then how are today’s Karateka to know any different?
Karate looks and sounds like a devastating and powerful fighting art. But it has lost its original driving force and has been replaced with….something else.
That “heart” was the kata and the study of what kata contained. Suffused with this knowledge was the commonly accepted fact (generations ago) that the purpose of Karate was for self-defense for use in civilian circumstances. This commonly accepted fact is no longer commonly accepted, and as a result, the kata has become an anachronistic activity with little or no purpose.
Thankfully, there are those who are dedicated to the kata and the art that Karate once was. In just about all cases, much work must be done to rediscover that which has been lost….something akin to a form of archaeology. As the kata is being uncovered and the treasures they contain are exhumed, then the kata can live again, rather than become a historical artifact.
The kata and their uses are every bit as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago. The individual still needs to learn self-defense, and kata-based Karate is about as effective as it gets. But do not just take my word for it. Have a look for yourself.