Karate is a popular martial art. Regardless of whether it is viewed as a classical and/or competitive fighting art practiced by those who wish to hone their self-defense skills while developing self-mastery, or a convenient extra-curricular activity that parents are happy to send their children to after school, it continues to maintain a relatively high level of interest in many countries around the world.
The origin of the martial art known as Karate dates back to the early systems of fighting developed in the Ryukyu Islands. Because of the location of its origin, the martial art evolved through decades of cultural exchange with neighboring countries, and by the 1920s the discipline was formally introduced to mainland Japan, where it gained status as a prominent striking art.
During the 1950s, Karate schools or “Dojos”, began opening in the western hemisphere, with some of the earliest of these schools appearing in North America. As Dojos became more common, Karate, which was once considered a mysterious oriental practice gradually became a popular discipline and recreational activity for both the young and adults.
It is not uncommon to find martial artists of other disciplines who hold Karate in high regard, as in many cases, it has served as an introduction to the world of martial arts for many practitioners, due partly to the fact that it is one of the most popular martial arts offered as a recreational program.
Karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics
The international prominence of karate has gained it the support of the International Olympic Committee, which for sometime has considered the inclusion of the martial art into the Summer Olympics. As a result of this support, Karate was added to the Olympic program specifically for 2020 and is set to debut at the Summer Olympic games in Tokyo.
Because of this elevation in status, there is likely to be an increase in awareness of Karate, and as a result of this, it is possible that more people may become interested in joining karate clubs or dojos in order to learn and possibly excel in the martial art.
Beware the “Mc Dojo”
While it is common for some to join a dojo with knowledge acquired from research and/or prior training, I have noticed that there are many instances where wide-eyed, enthusiastic persons join karate classes with little to no knowledge of what they are getting into. Some simply enter the dojo with the intention of joining merely because they are dazzled by the “cool moves”, or love martial arts movies and “always wanted to learn.”
Sometimes, this may not be such a bad thing, as joining a program with little to no preconceptions may encourage the willingness to follow directions, while keeping an open mind, which in turn can result in a more enjoyable and productive experience. Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way that this may not always be the case.
Experiences have brought me to realize that not every Karate instructor decorated with a magnificent sounding title such as Sensei, Shihan or Grandmaster is in fact an honest person. There are charlatans everywhere and from all walks of life, and the world of martial arts is not devoid of them. At times lacking knowledge and being naive will make one a target for exploitation, and in a case where the head of a school is dishonest, the probability of being taken advantage of, while someone else laughs all the way to the bank is high.
Because of my experiences, and current awareness of this issue, I have decided to list at least four things which a person rightly should pay attention to when joining a dojo, in order to decide whether they are making the right decision in investing time, money and effort in becoming a member.
WHAT STYLE OF KARATE DO YOU TEACH?
Like many other martial arts, Karate has branched out into several styles and sub styles throughout the ages. What was once a relatively small number of striking arts named after the districts of the Ryukyu kingdom in which they were founded and practiced, eventually branched out into numerous styles all innovated and uniquely branded by their respective founders.
Some well-known styles of Karate are
- Shotokan – This style was introduced to Japan in the 1920s by a native Okinawan named Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), who is regarded by many as the father of modern Karate simply because of his influence in the development of Karate at a time when it was being formally transmitted from Okinawa to mainland Japan. Shotokan Karate makes use of slightly deeper stances and extended postures than some other styles of Karate. Body movement is mostly linear and combined with powerful strikes. Shotokan Karate is one of the most common and accessible styles of Karate worldwide.
- Shito Ryu – Shito Ryu was founded by an Okinawan named Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952). Mabuni was a police officer, and was said to have been an accomplished martial artist who, at times was sought out for his knowledge of Okinawan, Chinese, and Japanese martial arts. Like Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni was among the few early teachers who was influential in popularizing Karate in Japan. Shito Ryu contains higher stances than Shotokan, while combining circular and linear movements. Strikes tend to be fast yet fluid. Shito Ryu is unique among the earlier styles of Karate in that it sometimes integrates traditional Japanese sword arts into it’s syllabus.
- Goju Ryu – This style revolves around the philosophy of harmony, and is referred to as the school of hard/soft. The style was founded by Chōjun Miyagi (1888-1953). Miyagi was said to have combined his knowledge of the Okinawan style called Naha-te which he learned from his teacher Higaonna Kanryō (1853-1915), with southern Chinese martial arts in order to create his unique style of Karate. Goju Ryu makes use of internal power through breathing techniques, as well as precise, circular flowing movements. Many of the techniques taught in this system seem to be designed for close range combat.
- Wado Ryu – This style of Karate was founded by a Japanese student of Gichin Funakoshi named Hironori Ōtsuka (1892-1982). Apart from Shotokan, Hironori Ōtsuka also studied Shito Ryu Karate and another Ryukun style of karate called Motobu Ryu. Ōtsuka synthesized his knowledge of Karate with his knowledge of Yōshin-ryū jujitsu in order to create his own style of Karate. Wado ryu focuses on flowing and re directing attacks as well as small but appropriate shifting of body weight in order to dodge and/or neutralize attacks.
The above mentioned styles of Karate only scrape the surface. Apart from these four highly recognized styles, there are other noteworthy branches of the art which over the years have attracted popularity on a global scale. Some of these are Kyokushin which stresses full contact sparring and tough physical conditioning, American Kenpo or Kenpo karate which was created in the cultural melting pot of Hawaii during the 1940s, and advocates quick body movement along with rapid fire attacks to the vitals, and Freestyle Karate which is usually an eclectic blend of several types of traditional styles of karate as well as other disciplines.
The response that one would receive from an instructor upon asking “What style of Karate do you teach?” can be a defining moment in considering whether he/she is a credible martial artist and martial arts teacher or a con man wearing a Karategi. While it may be possible for an instructor to have studied a combination of styles of karate and/or other martial arts and then to have combined and systematized these disciplines into his personal style, such a feat is not a casual overnight task and can take years of dedication and constant refinement.
Therefore, if a seemingly fly-by-night instructor claims that he/she teaches their own style, gives said style a derivative name such as “Joe Kune Do”, boasts that it is the most effective method of combat for the streets, is vague about the styles of karate that they initially learned before creating their own, and gives sketchy information about who they learned from, chances are you would be completely correct in listening to the intuitive feeling that this person is a charlatan and that it would be in your best interest to find a more credible and better qualified instructor.
ARE THE FEES TO HIGH?
Martial arts classes can be costly. Upon joining a program, fees may be payable per session, monthly or annually. Some schools may be more affordable than others, and payment plans or bundles such as $200.00-$250.00 for three months may be offered by some instructors in order to make the payment of fees somewhat easier and to allow students to save money. Some instructors may have a fixed fee per class and expect to be paid the full fee regardless of whether the entire class is in attendance. Personal training would naturally be more costly than regular classes.
It is important to understand that in Karate, and martial arts classes in general, an instructor is giving up his/her time and energy in order to teach a skill, and therefore valuable consideration from student to teacher is not a bad thing. Despite being aware of this, It is also important for students to pay attention to the quality of the service that they are receiving in comparison to the amount of money that they are paying.
Am I satisfied with the training that I am getting for the price? Is the area in which I train suitable? Is it well-equipped with apparatus such as mats, striking pads and other useful pieces of Karate training equipment? Does the instructor seem committed or does he/she more often than not delegate most of the teaching duties to other students? Does the instructor seem to have plans to utilize funds to better organize the dojo or does it appear to be just a quick and easy payday? Are students expected to bear the full burden of costs when it comes to obtaining uniforms, belts, grading fees, certificates etc? Is there at least water or a first aid kit in the dojo?
If you are being asked to pay high fees, all the above questions should be asked either to one’s self and/or to the instructor instead of continuously dishing out money from one’s pocket and blindly falling in.
“I AM TEACHING YOU SELF DEFENSE FOR THE STREETS!”
To the layperson, the word Karate and self defense go hand in hand. Unfortunately, this at times can be a misunderstanding of the art which is usually exploited by dishonest teachers. Everyone is different and has a unique pace at which they develop, however, on average, it may take at least three to five years of consistently practicing basics, conditioning exercises, and full contact sparring, in order for a Karateka (a person who practices Karate) to begin to understand the essence of the martial art and possibly be able to effectively defend himself/herself if necessary.
Even with evolved skills, It is not a guarantee that a trained Karateka will be able to effectively defuse a bad situation using the Karate that he/she has learned. Persons who are trained to fight may be more capable of handling themselves than most who are untrained when facing stressful and chaotic situations, yet despite this, it is important to understand that attackers may take many forms, and that a confrontational situation such as having to ward off a drunk brawler is not the same experience as being attacked by an armed gang.
It is possible for a trained soldier to have survived more than one tour of duty only to be accosted and shot or stabbed to death on the street. This is the uncertain and brutal nature of violence. Despite these facts there are instructors who allow their students to believe that what they are being taught is a surefire way of surviving the ruthless violence which can occur on the street.
In many instances these “street effective” self-defense techniques taught by such instructors are “one step training drills” in that they are basic prearranged two person drills designed to simulate attack and defense. One step drills are valuable in introducing students to the basics of self-defense but the reality is that a real fight is never prearranged. If a person who lacks real fighting experience is attacked, adrenaline, anxiety and tunnel vision may most likely set in, it becomes a situation of fight-flight -or freeze, and there is no time to think. The attacker will not stand waiting for a defense or counter. In short anything can happen at any moment.
In my opinion learning self-defense techniques can be a fun and valuable experience, but an even better experience is an instructor who is honest about the realities of fighting. There is no such thing as a fool proof self-defense system, there are only individuals who are better conditioned and more experienced at fighting than others.
BELTS ARE AWARDED LIKE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS
One of the most well-known aspects of Karate is it’s ranking system. A casual mention of attending Karate classes to anyone may most likely bring them to ask “What belt are you?” or “Are you a black belt?”. The colored belt ranking system or “Dan” system was developed by the founder of Judo Kanō Jigorō (1860-1938) and adopted by Gichin Funakoshi and other Okinawan teachers in order to structure a grading syllabus for their students.
Most Karate schools have a similar order of Kyu belts (pre black belt grades) which progress from white to three levels of brown. Dan ranks (black belt levels) progress from 1st degree to 10th degree. Progression of degrees are commonly marked by stripes on the belt.
Training hard and passing a grading exam in order to ascend in rank keeps classes challenging yet enjoyable. The colored belt ranking system is especially attractive to children, who usually train with enthusiasm with the hope of climbing the ranks and one day earning a black belt.
The negative side of this system is that belts don’t necessarily reflect the skill of the Karateka. In the past I have witnessed students being awarded belts that they clearly did not deserve. I am not sure whether this was done so that the head of the school could keep students happy in order for them to continue coming to class, or if the intention was to simply bolster the number of senior ranks in the school. Whatever the reason may have been, it is my opinion that this compromises the integrity of the school.
In Karate, grading is a process where the student shows the skills he/she has acquired thus far. The sensei examines the students performance and informs them of their strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, some instructors have turned this into a money making, belt and certificate award ceremony, as in most schools, the examination process and the new belt are not free.
A Karate student should pay attention to whether his/her Karate school boasts a high number of dan ranks, and if so, take note of how important the development of skills are in order to obtain a senior rank. If a student wearing a black belt is unable to execute a basic technique such as Mawashi Geri Jōdan (A roundhouse kick to the head) without loosing balance or showing signs of poor flexibility, then the students of this school are essentially wasting their time and money.
As I mentioned earlier, fraud and quackery are not limited to Karate alone. A person should be on the alert for con artists in every association or organization, however, Karate’s thriving popularity, and the ability of some to advertise themselves as competent instructors without necessarily having to present authentic forms qualification, has brought many scam artists to don Gis and title themselves Sensei.
Despite stating all the above, I don’t think that people should become cynical and altogether shun Karate, as in my opinion it is an excellent discipline. It is also highly possible that the number of genuinely qualified instructors with schools outnumber the bogus ones, as today, information is more abundant than it was two to three decades ago, and in some respects, it has become a greater challenge to deceive others because of this increase in access to information.
Finally, it is also important to note that sometimes, even a good karate school with a competent head instructor may contain some negative practices, as organizations are run by people, and despite the adage “nobody is perfect” being cliché, it is also a timeless truth. Despite the negatives which exist in some schools, it may at times be necessary for a student to work around the apparent shortcomings and seize whatever valuable information is being taught.
Below is a list of books on Karate that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the reading further on the martial art.
THIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS. PLEASE READ MY DISCLOSURE FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Bubishi was a cherished possession of the early founders of the various schools of Okinawan Karate. The earliest copies were written in Chinese, and were said to have been hand copied and shared from teacher to student. The manual was described as the “Bible of Karate” by Sensei Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) who was the founder of Goju Ryu Karate. This translation of the Bubishi reveals the Fujian White Crane and Monk Fist (Southern Shaolin Lohan ) kung fu origins of Okinawan Karate while explaining in detail the subsquent Japanization of the martial art. The Author of this translation is Karate historian Hanshi Patrick McCarthy, who is one of the few foreigners to teach karate-do in Japan. Hanshi McCarthy is recognized worldwide as one of the foremost authorities on the civil fighting traditions of Okinawa.This book can be a useful addition to the library of those who wish to explore the historical aspect of Karate.
Karate-Do: My Way of Life is a short autobiography written by the famous Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) who is regarded by many as the father of modern Karate, and is the founder of the Shotokhan school of karatedo. At the age of ninety, Sensei Gichin Funakoshi looks back and recounts his experiences from learning Karate as a sickly youth to growing to adulthood and eventually becoming a teacher of the martial art. The now world renowned teacher tells a personal tale of his struggles, achievements and failures, and how they shaped his outlook on life. The author’s humble and introspective way of connecting with the reader makes this book suitable for anyone who would enjoy a well written life story while at the same time being an informative piece on the philosophical aspect of Karatedo.
Watashi no Karate-jutsu (“My Art of Karate”) is one of two books written by Sensei Motobu Choki who among his Okinawan contemporaries was possibly the most powerful fighter and capable Karate technician. The book offers historical information on Sensei Motobu Choki as well as perspectives and accounts given by a number of his peers. Also included are insights to training methods of his close contact sparring-heavy style called Motobu Ryu. This book can be valuable to anyone who wishes to explore the full contact hard hitting style of Sensei Motobu Choki, or to simply broaden their knowledge of traditional Okinawan Karate by reading the work of one of it’s most unique an formidable practitioners.