Karate is a system of fighting using the hands, feet, head, knees, and elbows as weapons. Karate was developed on the island of Okinawa and brought to Japan in the early 20th Century. Karate is a high risk, high yield martial art with an emphasis on maximizing the damage caused by each strike by harnessing every possible ounce of physical and mental leverage to exceed the normal limitations of the practitioner.

Shotokan Karate is recognizable by its linear, direct punching, blocking, and kicking techniques from low stances. Shotokan emphasizes correct posture, correct joint alignment, and formality of basic technique above all else. The Shotokan expert is expected to perform using strictly defined basic techniques even under harsh conditions. Basic techniques are defined to the minutest detail, and performing them with absolute perfection is given the highest priority. The intrinsic mastery of one’s body dynamics to generate fantastic amounts of power is really what sets Shotokan Karate apart from other styles. The modern science of Biomechanics and Sports Medicine has been fused with ancient Japanese and Okinawan training methods to produce one of the most powerful Martial Arts in Human history.

The Shotokan view is that purity of raw technique is most important. The idea behind this is that one elegant technique mastered so completely that it is as natural as flipping a light switch will finish off the opponent quickly and efficiently. In situations where there are multiple opponents, such an ability is believed essential because there may not be time to throw more than one technique per opponent, and grappling and getting tangled up with your adversary when two others are also trying to harm you is probably unwise. Therefore, each Karate technique is maximized at the expense of learning more complicated defenses. In combat, less is usually more. Simple techniques win (physical, mental and emotional) engagements. The Shotokan belief is that nothing is more important than strong basic technique.

When attacked, Shotokan fighters stand their ground. They may shift one step to the side in order to flank the attacker, but the most common defense used is a pre-emptive strike against an incoming opponent. While Shotokan is simple and does not employ a wide variety of motions, the few techniques are designed to be mastered to such a high degree of precision and ease of use that they "truly" become extremely effective weapons.

Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi has said, "The mind and the technique become one in true Karate-Do." We strive to make our physical techniques pure expressions of our mind's intention, and to improve our mind's focus by understanding the essence of the physical techniques. By polishing our Karate practice, we are polishing our own character and spirit. For example, eliminating weak and indecisive movements in our Karate helps us to eliminate weakness and indecision in our minds--and vice versa.

It is in this sense that Karate becomes a way of life, as we try to become very strong but happy and peaceful people. As Tsutomu Ohshima, chief instructor of Shotokan Karate of America, has put it, "We must be strong enough to express our true minds to any opponent, anytime, in any circumstance. We must be calm enough to express ourselves humbly."


What is Karate?
by Master Gichin Funakoshi.

From Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text, Kodansha International, 1973.

In Okinawa, a miraculous and mysterious martial art has come down to us from the past. It is said that one who masters its techniques can defend himself readily without resort to weapons and can perform remarkable feats: the breaking of several thick boards with his fist or ceiling panels of a room with a kick. With his shuto ("sword hand") he can kill a bull with a single stroke; he can pierce the flank of a horse with his open hand; he can cross a room grasping the beams of the ceiling with his fingers, crush a green bamboo stalk with his bare hand, shear a hemp rope with a twist, or gouge soft rock with his hands. 

Some consider these aspects of this miraculous and mysterious martial art to be the essence of Karate-do. But such feats are a small part of karate, playing a role analogous to the straw-cutting test of kendo [Japanese fencing], and it is erroneous to think that there is no more to Karate-do than this. In fact, true Karate-do places weight upon spiritual rather than physical matters, as we shall discuss. True Karate-do is this: that in daily life, one's mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.


Karate-do is a martial art peculiar to Okinawa in its origins. Although it has in the past tended to be confused with Chinese boxing because of the use of the Chinese "kara" character in its earlier name, in fact for the past thousand years, the study and practice of masters and experts, through which it was nurtured and perfected and formed into the unified martial art that it is today, took place in Okinawa. It is, therefore, not a distortion to represent it as an Okinawan martial art. 

One may ask why the Chinese "kara" character has been retained for so long. As I discuss in the section "The Development of Karate-do, " I believe that at the time the influence of Chinese culture was at its peak in Japan, many experts in the martial arts traveled to China to practice Chinese boxing. With their new knowledge, they altered the existing martial art, called Okinawa-te, weeding out its bad points and adding good points to it, thus working it into an elegant art. It may be speculated that they considered "kara" (with the Chinese character) an appropriate new name. Since, even in contemporary Japan, there are many people who are impressed by anything that is foreign, it is not difficult to imagine the high regard for anything Chinese that prevailed during that period in Okinawa. Even at the time of the present writer's youth, lack of a full set of Chinese furniture and furnishings in one's home was a serious impediment to the social influence of any leading family. 

With this background, the reason for the choice of the Chinese "kara" character, meaning "Chinese," as a simple case of exoticism is apparent. 

Following tradition, the writer has in the past continued to use the Chinese character. However, because of the frequent confusion with Chinese boxing, and the fact that the Okinawan martial art may now be considered a Japanese martial art, it is inappropriate, and in a sense degrading, to continue use of the old "kara" in the name. For this reason, in spite of many protests, we have abandoned the use of it to replace it with the new character KARA. 

The Meaning of Kara

The first connotation of kara indicates that karate is a technique that permits one to defend himself with his bare hands and fists without weapons. 

Second, just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karate-do purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he receives. This is another meaning of the element kara in Karate-do. 

Next, he who would study Karate-do must always strive to be inwardly humble and outwardly gentle. However, once he has decided to stand up for the cause of justice, then he must have the courage expressed in the saying, "Even if it must be ten million foes, I go!" Thus, he is like the green bamboo stalk: hollow (kara) inside, straight, and with knots, that is, unselfish, gentle, and moderate. This meaning is also contained in the element kara of Karate-do. 

Finally, in a fundamental way, the form of the universe is emptiness kara), and, thus, emptiness is form itself. There are many kinds of martial arts, judo, kendo, sojutsu ("spear techniques"), bojutsu ("stick techniques"), and others, but at a fundamental level all these arts rest on the same basis as Karate-do. It is no exaggeration to say that the original sense of Karate-do is at one with the basis of all martial arts. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form itself. The kara of Karate-do has this meaning.


Shotokan Karate Training

There are three components to Shotokan karate training: kihon, kata, and kumite. Each plays a crucial role to the development of karate skills. While particular teachers and particular training sessions may emphasize some (or only one) components, none of them can be neglected in the course of one's training.

Kihon is the practice of fundamental techniques: blocking, punching, striking, and kicking. These techniques are the beginning and end of karate -- a karateka (practitioner of karate) may learn them in a matter of months, yet fail to master them after a life's worth of training. Hence, basic techniques demand regular practice, applied with as much concentration and effort as possible.

According to the late Masatoshi Nakayama sensei, the karateka must practice kihon with the following in mind:

The kata are formal exercises which combine basic karate techniques -- blocking, punching, striking, and kicking -- into a series of predetermined movements. Kata combines offensive and defensive techniques, proper body movement, and changes in direction. The kata teach the karateka to dispose of numerous attackers from at least four directions. Although the kata do not involve visible opponents, the karateka, through serious study of the kata, learns the art of self-defense and the ability to calmly and efficiently deal with dangerous situations. For these reasons, the kata have been the core of karate training since ancient times.

According to Sensei Nakayama, there are five characteristics of kata:

  1. For each kata, there are a fixed number of movements. (The basic Heian kata have 20 to 27 movements; advanced kata can have over 60.) One must perform the movements in the correct order.
  2. One must begin and end the kata at the same point on the floor. Each kata has its own "shape" -- depending on the kata, the karateka may move along a straight line or a "T"- or "I"-shaped formation.
  3. There are kata that all karateka must learn, and kata that are optional. The former consist of the five Heian kata and three Tekki kata. The optional kata are Bassai-dai (although most brown belts practice this for their black belt exam) and Bassai-sho, Kanku-dai and Kanku-sho, Empi, Hangetsu, Jitte, Gankaku, Jion. Other kata include Meikyo, Chinte, Nijushiho, Gojushiho-dai and Gojushiho-sho, Hyakuhachiho, Sanchin, Tensho, Unsu, Sochin, Seienchin, Ji'in, and Wankan.
  4. There are three aspects to performing a dynamic kata: (1) correct use of power; (2) correct speed of movement, be it fast or slow; (3) expansion and contraction of the body. The kata's beauty, power, and rhythm depend on these aspects.
  5. One bows at the beginning and end of the kata. Bowing is part of the kata, too.

Kata and kumite are complementary training methods. In kata, one learns basic techniques; in kumite, one applies them with a sparring partner. The principles of kihon still apply to kumite: the karateka must apply proper karate techniques, demonstrate correct power and speed, and, above all, exercise good control. One must remember that, while kumite is a useful application of the fundamentals learned through kata, it is not a substitute for kata.

There are three types of kumite: basic kumite, ippon (one-step) kumite, and jiyu (free) kumite.

Basic kumite, consisting of five- or three-step sparring, permits the karateka to cultivate basic blocking and attacking through prearranged techniques. It is a useful introduction to sparring for beginning students.

Ippon kumite also involves basic, prearranged techniques, but adds emphasis on body movements and proper distancing from the opponent.

In jiyu kumite, techniques are not prearranged. The karateka may freely engage her physical and mental powers, but must strictly control her attacks -- contact is prohibited. The karateka must be well-trained and disciplined enough to make a powerful blow that stops just before it reaches its target. For these reasons, only advanced students may practice jiyu kumite.


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