Blending the wisdom of the traditional martial arts with the effectiveness of progressive modern combat methods.

What is Karate?

SFS new Gojo Karate logo What is Karate?

This is an excert of a discussion held on Facebook recently, that raises some interesting points of view…

FB 1:  What is Karate?  I would like to ask the question to understand what karate means to individuals as we all have different backgrounds and styles and thoughts.

GIO:  What makes Karate a unique martial art, different from Kick Boxing or Savate or Kung fu is it's place of origin, Okinawa, the techniques it favours and their application. At the core of Karate lies Kata. Historically karate has been taught as junbi undo (calisthenics), hojo undo (body conditioning), kihon (basic techniques), kata (forms / patterns) and kumite (sparring). Kumite was often pre-arranged and was often a form of bunkai (application of the kata). After WWII jiyu kumite (free sparring) became more popular as a result of the introduction of shiai (competitions). Modern Karate (post WWII) differs from early Karate (pre 1920) in that early Karate focused on self-defence, whereas modern Karate has focused on sport. That is not to say that this is definitive, there have been many exceptions to this rule. Certainly since the rise of MMA there has been a greater focus by Karateka on the application of Karate. This has created great interest in Bunkai (application of kata). Karate like all things evolves continuously. There are two fantastic books, well researched and written by Christopher M Clarke to read about early Karate: 1. Okinawan Karate: A History of Styles and Masters: Volume 1: Shuri-te and Shorin-ryu and 2. Okinawan Karate: A History of Styles and Masters: Volume 2: Fujian Antecedents, Naha-te, Goju-ryu, and Other Styles. The history of Karate teaches me one thing especially and that is that KATA has always been at the heart of Karate.

FB 1:  Karate for myself is a personal journey. I have come to the conclusion for myself i cannot call my karate a style. I like the hand speed and body head movement of a boxer, I like skills from wrestling, I like ground fighting from BJJ. I like joint manipulation from Jiu jitsu .

Then it's great to add the other bits in like kick to the nuts, throat strikes, eye gauging ,hair pulling nasty stuff not seen in sport.

Karate (empty hand) is evolving like a car. For example the new M3 is so much better than the first model with all new equipment and away with the old.

I think karate for me needs to keep changing and adapting.

I spent years learning basics and kata to find every street fight I've been involved in is so different making most of what I learnt work perhaps 10percent of the time whereas most boxing drills (kata) are correct to reading punches and shoulder movement and counter punches.

Since training in Bjj I have noticed a massive empty space in karate for ground fighting Kata as there are various techniques that could b put together to save someone on the ground .

If you take a high level MMA fighter and add the nasty stuff to their artillery who is to say what they are doing is not Karate ( empty hand) because of no kata training , yet in their own head they can put combos together whilst fighting to defeat an opponent rather than a make believe (kata) pretending they are fighting.

For myself I think there is so much Emphasis on the old, in trying to keep styles trying to keep the old ways and in fear of creating new ways.

For me personally boxing is karate, grappling is karate , MMA is karate , wrestling is karate Bjj is karate , Jiu jitsu is karate anything where I can use my hands to win against an opponent .

Karate is defiantly a personal journey for me with so many questions and never enough answers but all the same very enjoyable.

I have met some great friends along the way and instructors.

Train hard fight easy.

GIO: An M3 modern or old is still a BMW, because it will have BMW branding and styling. The modern BMW M3 will have evolved from early BMW M3's and no doubt be faster, more efficient and more comfortable, but it will have been shaped by earlier models. To call a BMW M3 by another name does not change what it is...because it's history is clear. In the same way Karate is Karate because of its history. It is shaped and moulded and twisted and turned by successive cultures and generations. The Okinawans developed a largely percussive self defence system with influences from China, South East Asia and pre-Satsuma invasion Japan. This was generally called TE or hand. At its core was KATA. Because of the strong Chinese influence in the 1800 Te was called China Hand (KARA TE). In the early 1900 the exporting of Karate to Japan and the Sino Japanese war resulted in China Hand (KARA TE) being changed to Empty Hand (Karate) by an Okinawan soldier that had fought for Japan in the Sino Japanese war, Hanashiro Chomo. Early TE, China TE and Empty TE are the early semantic evolution of Karate. In terms of what was practiced, I covered that earlier, but the core was always kata. That is not to say that the kata has not changed. Kata changed dramatically in the 1900 when Itotsu Anko (one of Funakoshi's teachers) systematised Karate for introduction into the Okinawan school system. History tells us that not all the 19th century instructors were happy with the softening of Karate kata, but with the modern emphasis on shiai (competition) the change happened unchallenged. Many kata have been changed for the sake of appearance and many of the applications have been lost...but Karate is not Karate without at least the tenuous link to its roots and that is through kata. I don't support the idea that kata should be unchallenged nor unchanged, but I believe that without kata what you practice is Kick Boxing or Krav Maga or Savate or Tae Kwan Do or any number of Martial Arts that have been influenced by Karate or even something completely new. That is not a bad thing...It's just something new. Calling what you do Karate just because you use empty hands is a simplification of the language used to describe Karate. If you call what you do Karate then it should reflect its history, or at least acknowledge it in more than name. Karate is unique because it came from Okinawa, was influenced by many other fighting traditions, but stood apart because of its execution and that can be directly linked to the KATA. Karate is KATA, kata is KARATE.

FB 1:  I understand the reflection of kata in karate. But what is kata because all of the modern systems don't reflect traditional kata so does that mean they are not Karate? Taekwondo has forms so could be karate?

What actually is correct kata?

For example a boxer will learn drills to work hand as well as feet head movement and shoulder movement this has not changed to much through the years and generally works.

Can this be said for Kata is there actually a true form of Kata or do we just make up our own?

If we make up our own kata is it still karate?

Kata in the 1800 would not reflect today's society?

So for example jab cross then knee followed by uppercut a sequence of moves in k boxing to attack an opponent it could b practised in the air is that then a kata making kick boxing karate ?

Most systems have forms of moves. Krav  Maga for example kick to the nuts strike to the chin elbow back of the neck then drop then to the ground . If this was done in the air with a pretend attacker is this not a kata the for argument sake could be called (aggressive Kata ) therefore karate .

Wado has the pinan katas they were a new kata therefor made up yet the instructor has kept the word karate behind his style.

So what dictates in today's society a true kata for karate. Surly any sequence of moves is kata and everything I know has a sequence of moves , boxing, Bjj, MMA, wrestling, so with all of these you could change the name from sequence of moves to kata and they could be their own karate styles ?

GIO:  The Kata of Karate are a response to habitual acts of violence. The original intent of some kata may be lost to us know, but we are not precluded from changing those things that don't make sense to things that do. Kata is by its nature a pattern that can be repeated over and over again. Ideally kata should have a clear bunkai, but the 1930 - 60's clouded that. I believe that the modernization of Karate post WWII changed Karate in a profound way, but the historical link to its roots was and is still there. Whether you do effective or ineffective kata / karate now is down to your instruction, your analysis and your understanding of kata. So what you make of the kata is in your hands. In the 1900 many kata were changed, re-invented and somewhere invented as well. The act of doing kata is what defines karate, not what kata you do. I believe that Taekwondo is a form of Karate...but it now has its own history and it is something else, it is not Karate. The point of the previous post was to high light that Karate is Okinawan in origin and has a certain form...if what you do is historically linked to that form then you do Karate, if not then it is something new...Kick Boxing may have set pieces, but it does not have set patterns for the transmission of technical information. Karate has three K's...Kihon, Kata and Kumite...this coupled with its Okinawan history makes it unique. There are many modern alternatives to Karate and many of them have to greater or lesser extents been influenced by Karate...but if they do not reflect a historical link...technically...they are something different and will be called something different. There are many styles of Karate and many interpretations of Karate, but they all need to reflect the nature of Karate to be Karate and that nature is inherent and inherited in the kata.

FB 1:  So many questions with Kata so many cans of worms.

If Kata is Karate which Kata's and who has the true reflection of these Kata's.

If Kata is a sequence of moves for combat then does that make any martial art or even sport (MMA) a karate style.  Because there is still no definitive on here what is Kata. Because all katas dating back were a made up form by an instructor.

So what dictates true kata? Because we could say half the modern systems are not karate they have a sequence of moves for competition and not for battle. Yet if you was to take a sequence of moves in Krav Maga they would probably reflect old karate a lot better than the modern systems

GIO:  Be that as it may...your own development as a Karateka is dependent on your understanding of kata. Karate uses kata as a kind of technical manual. As technical understanding changes so should Kata. As focus changes so will kata. But always at the root of Karate is KATA. The history of Karate is a history of kata...in the 1800 kata had a focus on self-defense, in the 1900 on physical development, from 1950 onwards on sport and recently a renewed interest in self-defence. Not a can of worms when you look at the bigger picture, just different focus at different times...evolution as it were.

FB 1:  I do completely understand all of that.

I also understand that kata is karate.

As we are all different in shape sizes and mental attitude then there is no definitive kata. As we all act and react differently under pressure that means our kata will be individual to each person meaning we all have our own katas, translating to our own sequence of moves and understanding why they work.

Individual kata, individual kihon, individual sparring, as we are all individual so this in respect could make all various combat forms karate as long as we understand this.

So surely as no one actually can translate the old kata correctly or everyone has their own individual translation to the kata there actually is no correct form to karate.

GIO:  There is no correct form, only what works best. Even though we are all different there are basic principles that apply to us, after all the laws of physics are universal. The object is not to translate the kata to its original intent, but to find the intent that suites your purpose. Like reading poetry...what the poet meant is not always the meaning that you find. This doesn't devalue the poem or the poet; in fact it’s what makes poetry great. You find what you need to find. I research my Karate Kata by learning from my instructors, by reading, watching recordings and by practicing. I have no doubt that my kata is different, but I know I am doing Karate because I do kata as an integral part of my karate training. For your kata to be effective YOU must find its meaning and so kata becomes more than the sum of its parts. It is not just a set of techniques strung together, but so much more. Just like poetry is not just a set sentences strung together, but so much more. Instruction of kata without having an understanding of it is what has created much of the emptiness that so many Karateka complain about and this is largely as a result of the changes made to introduce Karate into schools in the 1900, as well as the introduction of competition in the 50's. My message is that kata is as alive or dead as you chose to make it, but if you do not do any kata then you do not do Karate.

FB 1:  I completely agree!  Thank you.

So next question…

When do you think we will see brand new Kata's in karate for example?

I have a … Ground fighting kata…would allow students to learn how to get out of trouble on the ground and can be practised as moves and done solo.

GIO:  New katas emerge as necessity dictates. There are so many possible references to new kata being introduced, but I'll try to list some...Miyagi and Nagamine created Gekisai / Fukyu kata. Mabuni changed Gekisai and called it Shinsei. I changed Shinsei and used different kanji to highlight the difference... Another modern example of kata evolution....Kanei Uechi added several kata that he created, to his father’s Uechi Ryu to create modern Uechi Ryu. Mabuni created a kata just for woman's self defese called Aoyagi and the list continues. As for changing kata, well the most famous example is Gigen Funakoshi who renamed all the kata that he introduced to his Japanese students and then allowed his son Gigo Funakoshi to modernize with deeper stances and a completely new stance called kokutsu dachi to replace nekoashi dachi! Choose your kata according to your experience and understanding and if that means reworking a kata or even creating it then do so...if it works it may just survive to the next generation of karateka.

FB 2:… I would just like to… say: I personally Love and drill Kata, but there Is a case for Karate, even without Kata, as some of the eclectic Kenpo systems. Yes, it wouldn't, as Gio Sensei says, be Okinawan Karate, or Japanese Karate, but it would still be broadly recognisable as Karate.

GIO:  Kenpo Karate or American Kenpo Karate or Kenpo or Kajukenpo all share some Karate influence, but they are also greatly influenced by Kuntao (Chinese Kung Fu) and so choose to differentiate themselves from Karate parse.  British Isshin Ryu, under Ticky Donovan, is a British form of Karate with no direct roots in Okinawa or Japan, but it is clearly linked by direct history to Okinawa. I am not arguing that only Okinawan's do Karate...I am saying that Karate must reflect its origin and intent to be Karate or it will be called something else...and Kenpo, Kenpo Karate, Kajukenpo,  etc. are perfect examples of this...They are something different, influenced by Karate, but not Karate and so they use a different name.

FB 3: ..on the subject of KATA, it is used as memory aid(tool),and has been changed by every master down the years, most notably Itosu Yasutsune, who introduced the pinan katas, and simplified things through necessity, so that young people could progress more quickly and in large numbers. this greatly changed the way sensei’s taught militarisation has a lot to answer for which is perhaps why this side of karate has longer stances and embu lines and bunkai remains an untaught mystery with judo and other techniques borrowed to fill gaps the kata of the naha te uechi and goju, contain far more than meets the eye, but even these were modified to suit the amalgamation of to de and the quan taken from china. Karate will continue to evolve which is only natural, but it would be wrong not to seek the hidden applications, of which there are many and simply make up what suits for us at the time. If karate is about competition this is very different from multiple and weapon attacks. Anko(iron horse) Itosu’ s 10 precepts on karate, as he saw it in 1908, is still the same for me, personally

GIO:  We concur on almost everything, except change in kata. What is hidden and then lost is of no use to anybody and the repetition of these useless moves is pointless. Kata is a technical lexicon and to be effective it must be accessible. Blindly repeating movements that have lost their application through history or misinformation is what has caused karate to stagnate... History teaches that both Karate and Kata are dynamic and change to meet the needs of the practitioner. The pioneers of modern Karate had no qualms with inventing, modifying or changing kata...why then should we? If the new is informed and applicable who is to say that it is wrong? Too often I have seen high ranking Karateka trying to make bunkai work with contrived applications...the term square peg into a round hole comes to mind, rather than adjusting the kata and bunkai to reflect a plausable application. Kata is as alive or dead, useful or useless as you allow it to be...You need to seek the truth of kata and not hope that the mystery will be unfolded if you diligently repeat the movements of the kata. Repetition is just repetition, it is not understanding.  Understanding comes from reviewing, challenging and adapting. Spending time doing the wrong things right will not make those things right...just because tradition or style dictate that it is so. Do the right things wrong until you get them right and you've progressed...that means rethinking your kata and your Karate relentlessly!

Gio Ds
Streetwise Fighting Systems
4th February 2013