I practiced Karate Shotokan for 2 years in the early eighties; I had a go at Wado Ryu in 1994 for less then a year and I then trained in many occasions with experts, dan level, of Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu and Kyokushin kaikan. I find it an interesting martial art(s) that brings, in most cases the whole Japanese (and Okinawan) tradition.
I will generalise in this post Karate as a single martial art while I am aware and encourage the reader to find out the differences between the over 10 main styles that all share similar techniques but develop a variety of strategies and preferences for linear rather than circular movements, harder versus softer approach to attacks and blocks and so on. Karate manifests itself with a broad variety of strikes using various parts of the hand, elbow, knee, and foot. Hands can be used to strike with a closed fist to hit in a traditional punch with the knuckles, hammer fist or back fist; open hand can deliver the chop with the external edge, knife hand or poke with fingers, finishing with palm strikes. A foot can hit with the ball in a front kick, the edge in a side kick and the hill in a rear kick.
A Karate class is usually regulated by a number of rituals like the initial salute, bowing toward the master and fellow students and kneeling in line while the master explains. The basic techniques, punches and kicks are usually taught first, together with the simpler stances and guards. Other strikes and advanced stances and position come later, at higher ranks.
When training Karate practitioners become aware of the famous 3 K:
- Kata, representing forms: they are sets of choreographed moves, to be practiced solo, simulating a fight against a number of opponents.
- Kihon, representing technical training: when two people are practicing various techniques attacking and defending each other.
- Kumite, representing fighting: when two opponents are facing each other and freely attack and defend each other in a competitive way. Rules about Kumite vary between styles: in some cases it’s bases on point sparring, with numerous limitations about areas that can be hit (e.g. no legs or back) while in other cases it’s free, full contact.
Karate (that in Japanese translates as empty hand, with the mean of fighting without a weapon) is a traditional martial art that originated during the 19th century in Okinawa when it was independent from the rest of Japan and it later spread across Japan. While some influence of Chinese martial arts is found in the very early stages of its development the various styles of Karate developed independently in Japan and Okinawa. Karate started to have a significant presence in the West after WWII and gained great popularity after the big wave of Hong Kong movies that were shown in cinema theatres in the early seventies. The Kung Fu shown in most of these movies was similar enough, to untrained eyes, to stimulate and encourage many people to start learning and practicing Karate.
What I like about Karate
Karate, like many martial arts, teaches and improves coordination, body awareness, and increases fitness helping to delivery faster and powerful techniques. With an average practice of 2-4 hours per week it keeps the practitioner in good shape and it can avoid the need for gym or other sport activities. The continuous training helps to ensure a good harmony between mind and body that can be utilized outside the Dojo (the venue where a Japanese martial art is practiced). Karate teaches essentially 3 good things:
- How to have snapping, explosive, techniques that can hit at the required and wanted level of power.
- Great control of one’s body at speed: you learn to have good coordination and how to hold your body in very precise positions.
- Devotion and respect for the master and fellow students: it instils discipline and rigour in practice and in life.
What I don’t like about Karate
In my experience Karate has 4 main limitations:
- The basic concept of guard is very open, offering a large percentage of the practitioner body a face available to the opponent’s attacks.
- Most karate styles rely on very strong, decisive, strikes assuming that a single kick or punch will stop the opponent. Bad news starts when this doesn’t happen.
- It’s not very effective in pure self defence terms: most of the practice makes lot of assumptions that are simply not true and when a random attacker hits you. I know of many experts of Karate that were seriously injured in street brawls.
- Some of its training can bring long term damages to joints and limbs: I feel that some of the practices failed to evolve into the latest discoveries in terms of physiology and sport sciences.
I am convinced that the basics of Karate are useful as a general concept. I would suggest it as excellent first martial arts, especially for children and young people because of the discipline and respects it instils. Classes for children as usually very well controlled in order to keep the practice safe for young people.
In any case I firmly believe that a decent or good knowledge of two or three martial arts is fundamental to have a reasonable understanding of how the same thing can be done differently.