I wrote this missive back in 2009. Having re-read it, I still feel that it has validity. Perhaps more so now than previously.

The future of karate-do?

There can be little doubt that Karate-do has drastically changed over the past five decades. It has gone from the traditional one-to-one (sensei to student, or very few students) of the non-commercial dojo in Okinawa, to the  trend of enthusiastic Karate-ka best represented in the Japanese university ‘Bu’ , and on to the more public face of karate, in the form of often confusing dojos and styles in almost every town and city world-wide.

Karate-do has truly become what can only described as an ‘art ‘ or ‘hobby’ (of whichever description) for everyone. 

The gobal Karate audience is now a diverse cross-section of society. More and more children are being drawn to Karate, perhaps because of the competitive aspect found in ‘Kyogi Karate’ (sports Karate); people who are middle aged and less athletically inclined are often interested in the health and lifestyle benefits of ‘Kenko’ Karate, with the additional benefit of Goshin-Do (Self defence). There also remains the core of people who have a keen interest in the traditional values of Karate-do found in ‘Budo karate’ and the ‘Kobudo’ of the Ryuku Islands.

It is this cross section of society, children, adults and a harder core section of those wishing to pursue the path of Budo, which ensures the continued growth of Karate. It is my contention that Karate-do will continue to thrive if the elements above co-exist in harmony, and can be inextricably linked by correct fusion.

There is little doubt that the stars of the future, those who will carry the mantle of Karate forward are from the younger generation, but they need the guidance and maturity that their seniors offer to ensure that Karate-do continues in the correct direction. 

The quandry might be – what is the future of Karate-do, Karate as a traditional art, Karate as a Shugyo, Karate as a lifelong pursuit?  

For Karate to survive there needs to be a fusion of Karate-do (Budo karate and its values) and sport Karate (Kyogi Karate) that offers something for all. There is much that can be done to ensure the continued progression of Karate-do, as opposed to the emerging sport trend of Karate as a competitive and spectator ‘sport’. I believe that Karate is not a sport, but an art, and when looked at below the surface, a life long pursuit of excellence.

Sport Karate (Kyogi Karate)

Since Kyogi Karate (competition Karate) is a major influence for many starting their journey, I will start with this element of Karate that is perhaps the public face of our art.

It is said that circa 1950 the Nihon Karate Kyokai (Japan Karate Association) began developing the practice of Jiyu Kumite as an integral element of their style, complimented by their Kihon syllabus. This practice was possibly developed with the intention of establishing  ‘a competitive attitude’ in Karate. This very sportification of Karate captured the imagination of the younger Japanese, and doubtless spurred the thriving University Karate Bu to greater heights.

There is little doubt that part of the ‘globalisation’ of Karate lays within the promoting a set of competitive rules and beginning ‘competitive’ or ‘sport Karate’.

Of course the contrary sentiment of Master Funakoshi Gichin advocated: 

“The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”  

For Karate-do to continue and flourish as an art it must not degenerate purely into a sport where the aim is solely to win and where karate success is based on the amount of medals a person has won. Kyogi Karate has its place in the continued growth of Karate, providing the rules do not create an empty shell of gymnastic technique, losing the true spirit of the martial art.

To explore this, I will split Kyogi Karate into its two categories: Kumite and Kata.

Kumite.

I believe that there should be two separate and distinct Kyogi Karate Takai (tournament) systems. For children a system where points are gained, and a winner can be clearly seen. This is within the remit of safety and sport. The child would use Karate techniques to gain the points, based on clean execution, good use of speed, ma, and ma-ai. As safety is the paramount concern, the lack of fighting spirit is not overly destructive to the Budo ethos. The child would learn sportsmanship, manners, and the necessity of hard work to provide results.

Adults should engage is Ippon Shobu Shiai which should be viewed as training and a learning exercise and not solely competition. The shiai must be fought in a sense where opponent is the teacher, and the purpose is purely to test skills, progress in training and spirit. Spirit combined with fluency of skill being the important aspect!

Core karate skills such as:

  • Kime (decision, sharpness, positive end to the waza), 
  • Go no Sen (allowing the opponent to attack then utilising your counter),                                                              
  • Sen no Sen (attacking at the same time),                     
  • Sen Sen no Sen (presumptive attack), 
  • Sasoi Waza (the created opening by ‘inviting’ an attack), 
  • Kyo  (unpreparedness following an attack at the moment of ‘off guard’),
  • Ma/Hyoshi (timing, distance in time), 
  • Kuzushi Waza (breaking of the balance – mental or physical)
  • Shikake Waza (set up techniques)
  • Ma-ai (position and distance between opponents);   

are demonstrated and tested, showing the development and application of concepts such  ‘issoku itto no ma-ai’  (strike or avoid in one step), and ‘Todome’ or ‘Ikken Hisatsu’.

Ippon Shobu is not about gaining points to win, but the execution of that one clean strike which is spirited, committed, effective, and final.

This would enable a spirit of Budo to remain within the competitive environment in kumite as the sense of ‘live or die’ so that we can truly learn the effectiveness of our technique, and ‘ichigo ichie’ one meeting one chance’, can remain. 

Ippon Shobu and its finality necessitate the building of Fudoshin (an unhindered mind) as opposed to Fushin (a hindered or stopped mind full of doubt fear etc). Kyogi Karate can still retain the concept of  ‘todome’ or ‘ikken hisatsu’. 

Kata.

Whilst it can be said that Kata competition is more subjective than Kumite, and that a clear winner is not always readily visible to spectators, or the novice within Karate-do; but, there is little doubt that the true spirit of Budo can still be seen.

Kyogi Karate Kata should be more than physical technique alone, where the flexible and athletic prevail. Kata must develop and demonstrate true Budo Ideals. I will discuss various points that Kyogi Kata should demonstrate:

From the point scoring point of view certain technical elements need to be shown such as:

  • Zanshin, (retain state of preparation after completion of move. metsuke, seme 
  • Ikita kata (the kata is alive performed with feel and purpose).
  • Inen (the kata is practised with spirit)
  • Chikara no kyojaku (relative power and strength)
  • Waza no kankyu (timing correct fast or slow)
  • Tai no shinshuku (expansion and contraction, elasticity of the body)
  • Kisoku no Dento (correct rhythm of breathing)
  • Muda waza (no wasted movement)
  • Kime (decisive and sharpness in movement, positive ending to waza)
  • Shisei (posture and balanced control at all times)
  • Kokyu (breathing)
  • Seishi (techniques should show what is referred to as a living stop as opposed to a total and dead stop).

On a deeper level the Kata shows the Budo elements of:

  • Ki gamae  (the state of body, alertness, showing the fighting awareness of being ready to act in a moment).
  • Ki-Seme (pressure or placing a sense of danger towards the imaginary opponent during the performance of kata).  If there is no feeling of danger or threat in the waza then it was a Muda Waza a wasted technique. Even a minor adjustment at the end of a technique, of the head, the hand, eyes equal a loss of seme.
  • Kigurai (bearing and demeanour).
  • Kasso Teki (the imaginary opponent, karate-ka must adapt accordingly in reaction to the opponent if he was real). The karate-ka must show they know where the opponent is. The movement in the kata should give a sense that the karate-ka understands “Teki ni yotte tenka seyo” or  ‘change depending on your opponent’.
  • Imperturbability (the karate-ka should not waver in concentration even if they have made a mistake). 
  • Metsuke and Mesen (the gaze, eyes). The eyes should not be fixed in one place. A sense of ‘enzan no metsuke’ or looking at distant mountains, focus in the distance, seeing all equally should be shown.
  • Jo Ha Kyu (beginning, middle, end of technique). Movement should be calm at the beginning, complex in middle, and fast on conclusion. Like a stream becomes a river, which in turn becomes a waterfall, and then settles into a still pond. All techniques can demonstrate this concept.

The Karate-ka can display the above concepts and skills in their Kata, and retain a sense of Budo, as opposed to a display of athletic techniques that are beautiful but devoid of spirit.

By ensuring that sport Kumite and Kata retain these principles we can continue to see Karate-Do as a Budo art, and not purely a competitive sport.

Kenko Karate for health and lifestyle

I will now address Kenko Karate, in particular the practise of Karate for good health, mental calmness, and lifestyle. Clive W Nicol (in his book) once made the analogy that Karate was ‘moving Zen.’ Whilst this is not strictly true there is little doubt that the combination of physical activity and total mental immersion necessary to perform karate to a high level, places the karate-ka in a state of mind that is tranquil and calm. Physical output in Karate is both aerobic and anaerobic giving the Karate-ka a total and fully rounded body workout. The heart, and muscles are placed under heavy stress and are strengthened. The sinews and ligaments are stretched making the body more flexible and mobile. These lead to a healthier body, a stronger mind, and a person less likely to succumb to illnesses and the effects of premature ageing. Aside from the obvious health benefits of a rounded fitness regime, the mental aspects of karate are equally good for the human being.

Karate-do can help a person calm the mind and de-stress in everyday situations, by teaching and creating the understanding of Heijo-Shin (the everyday mind).

A stressful day at work is forgotten once the Karate-ka dons his or her do-gi. An immersion into a different world ensues, where the mind is cleared of everyday problems and becomes clear devoid negative thoughts.

The expressions Mizu no Kokoro (a mind like water) and Tsuki no Kokoro (a mind like the moon) are usually referred to in terms of Kumite, yet they are equally applicable to Karate-do for lifestyle. It is necessary for the Karate-ka to empty or free his/her mind placing it into a state of mushin in order to perform the intricacies and skills required in kihon; more so in kata and kumite. This clarity of mind, or the ability to clear the mind, is clearly a stress reducing technique that is of great benefit in modern society. Once Karate-ka realise that Heijo shin koro michi is an attainable state of mind, normal business, normal life, plus the moments of extreme stress or danger can be handed with the same clarity and calmness.

Goshin-do

Goshin-do is often a drawing factor for Karate dojos, and in the fast paced world we now live in the ability to perceive danger, avoid danger, or correctly react to it is augmented by the core skills of defence that Karate offers. 

It must be said that Karate-do training offers a complete ‘health package’ for its participants, in particular  – lifestyle enhancement.  Kenko Karate cannot be overlooked in association or dojo marketing, and we must remember that once we bring a student into the dojo looking for Kenko Karate, the opportunities open for them to become Karate-ka in the traditional sense, perhaps first trying Kyogi Karate and ultimately – Budo Karate.

Budo Karate

Budo Karate can be separated into two factors, the first being the psychological and mental training offered to Karate-ka/Budo-ka, and the second the mechanical and physical skills learned by rigorous and realistic practise.

Aside from Kihon, Kata and Kumite that is standard practise in dojos, deeper study of the Bunkai in the kata offers the skills of Shime-waza (strangling/choking), Nage-waza (throwing techniques – for example Tsubame-gaeshi, Yari-dama, Koma-nage, Byobu-daoshi, Ude-wa), Ne-waza (groundfighting) and Kansetsu-waza (joint locks/manipulation). Whilst many will correlate this to Goshin-waza, the realism offered by such hand-on practise takes the karate-ka back to an older time, bringing the realism and danger (albeit controlled) back to training.

For me the attraction to Karate has been the Budo element. I have discussed much about Budo in the section on Kyogi karate, but this was only scratching the surface as it can be applied to sport Karate (Taikai).

Budo runs deeper than the above analogies, it runs through the veins of every serious Karate-ka. It is the backbone of serious martial arts. I believe wholeheartedly that it is the Budo element of Karate is the spirit, the soul of Karate, and what will ultimately take keep the true identity of Karate.

Karate enjoys a position of ‘Gendai Budo’ teaching traditional martial ways during peacetime, or ‘peaceful combat’ as a means to achieving perfection of the self. Karate-do follows the essence of ‘do’ the ‘michi’ or path of life learning, the battle against one’s self, the voyage of discovery that brings wisdom, truth, the understanding of the self and knowing the limitations and strengths of one’s own spirit. 

Karate-do gives the practitioner a total rounded character. Karate-do gives the Karate-ka more than just physical techniques and applications it transforms all aspects of life. A dedicated follower of Budo Karate does not study for ‘fun’, competition, or as a ‘fad’.

To attain a true understanding, one must seek the goal of ‘self-perfection’ (Jinkaku kansei ni tsutomuru koto) that requires significant time and effort; it is a long-term passage, and not one which can be attained with speed. Budo will become apparent to the Karate-ka (or any other martial art) who is dedicated, exerting their minds and bodies through rigorous training.

Master Gima Makoto said on the occasion of his 88th birthday:

“Through hard training, Karate seeks to foster a spirit that strives for truth and respect for others. It aspires to a complete and rounded character. In Okinawa, the Karate expert is called Bushi, namely a person of character, pure and noble, who has mastered the mysteries of the true art.”

Master Gima also stated: 

“Three years for the peach and chestnut to ripen, eight years for the persimmon to ripen, a lifetime for karate. Having begun karate, one continues for his entire life.”

Master Yamaguchi Gogen stated:

 “Budo did not originate in a peaceful atmosphere.  It was necessary to protect one’s life at the time, and to learn how to use Budo as a weapon and achieve one’s responsibility as a warrior.  It was the warrior’s duty to develop spirit. … It was necessary to obtain a technique to protect oneself, and one had to have a strong spirit to correspond to that.  When one could overcome a conception of death, there was an improvement of a human being as a Samurai.  When it was developed, karatedo was used in place of weapons and studied that way, so that the spirit of the Samurai was needed at the beginning of its conception to learn karate… Now, karate is the battle against one’s self and a means of the Way of one’s life, not to defeat others or to die.  This solitary fight is to know one’s own spirit and the desire to the naught that is superior to the limitation of the body.”

To my mind this is the true ideal of Karate-do. The fostering of a strong spirit, that strives for truth and respect. I believe that Karate-do is a lifelong pursuit, a ‘Shugyo’, long and rigorous training in the pursuit of higher levels of understanding of the self and consciousness.

A Karate-ka embarking on the journey of Karate-do as a Budo must train his/her body with purpose, sometimes enduring physical hardships. The Karate-ka must reflect introspectively, fighting their inner demons and fears, and grow as a person. 

Via Budo we can really begin to understand the concepts such as Zanshin, and Heijo Shin, particularly how they reflect on daily life.

For example, Zanshin can often be taught to Karate-ka as ‘awareness’ of what surrounds us, threats, dangers, obstacles etc.  But once we understand Budo we become concerned with the state of mind, before, during and after we have made an action or commitment. In our kumite, kata and waza we can show zanshin (externally) through our kamae or shisei (posture); we can show seme, we can project our ki and ‘calmness’. We can continue this through to daily life, and begin to understand why the samurai during the Senkoku period and beyond placed importance on the concept of Heijo shin koro michi. Through rigorous training and commitment we can truly begin to understand ourselves, and our own limitations; we can achieve Mushin and heijo shin (everyday mind). 

The Budo karate-ka can learn to keep his/her mind balanced, keeping calm in moments of stress in order to think clearly and react in a calm manner without fear and tension. 

Heijo shin clearly refers to the state of mind that is not fixed in any direction, but in a balanced state. The everyday mind, the mind that is not clouded, the clear mind that sees things with clarity and reacts accordingly.

Master Funakoshi Gichin wrote: 

“As a mirror’s polished surface reflects whatever stands before it and a quiet valley carries even the smallest sounds, so must the student of Karate render his mind empty of selfishness and wickedness in an effort to react appropriately toward anything he might encounter. This is the true meaning of Kara or ’empty’ of Karate.”

Heijo shin and its meaning is the cornerstone of classical Budo. Stability, control (of the self), calmness, even in the face of adversity or the enemy, whether on the battlefield or normal life.

At this moment of understanding it becomes truly possible to block or counter-strike immediately without hesitation.

A Karate-ka is in effect a Shugyo-sha and must extend their concentration and mind to all aspects of their life.

Kobudo in karate.

One of the main bones of contention those who criticise the modern methodology of Karate-do profess is that it karate has become the ‘empty shell’ of its former self. This may well be true in the sense that the modern practice is largely concerned with safety of its practitioners. Contact is kept to a minimum, and the normal syllabus utilises only Kihon Ippon, Jiyu Ippon and Jiyu kumite where ‘control’ is the order. Gima-ha Shotokan-Ryu takes the karate-ka one step closer to ‘realism’ by the introduction of and testing under the extreme kumite we refer to as ‘Jissen’.

Another means of bringing effectiveness, realism, and ‘feeling’ in Karate-do is the addition of Kobudo into the syllabus. The weapons are constructed out of hard material such as metal and wood. This instantly brings the effect of reality into our hands. Nunchaku, Kama, Tonfa, Bo, Sai etc. all would cause serious damage if used incorrectly. The Karate-ka using the weapons of Kobudo soon realises the ‘danger’ that is in their hands. The correlation between Kobudo and the empty hand skills in Karate also becomes evident. 

Again Gima-ha Shotokan-Ryu has the foresight to include Kobudo into the grading syllabus; being one of the few Shotokan based organisations to offer the Karate-ka this ‘reality’ in Karate-do.

Kobudo is the one facet that offers a true connection to the Ryukyu Karate of old. It gives the Karate-ka a sense of the old world. It also focuses the mind, utilising zanshin, seme and ‘ki ken tai’ (in this sense ken refers to the weapon and not the traditional meaning as in sword or fist) instilling a sense of Budo.

Summary.

I believe the future of Karate-do lays in the way those associations and dojos make the correlation between Budo, Sport, Kenko karate, and Kobudo; particularly in the way that we instil this fusion into our younger Karate-ka. They may commence karate training for Kyogi karate, but by careful nurturing and systematic training of Budo principles integrated into their syllabus, they will mature and develop into the Karate-ka of the future. As they mature their understanding and appreciation of the Budo elements will increase.

Today’s youth will become tomorrow’s adults, and the teachers of the future. It is essential that they are given a full and complete grounding in all aspects of karate-do.

Karate-do will continue to thrive and progress, if its teachers pass on its true spirit.

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