Friday night, I was invited by my students and their parents to see their Karate class at the neighborhood dojo. The “observe” part proved to be a misunderstanding as I was soon asked to join in for the next hour and a half of pushups, crunches, fighting forms and a final sparring match, all in a pair of dress slacks and cardigan. Though it was taxing, I had a great time and saw the reemergence of martial arts skills that, up until last night, had only seen the light of day during periodic exercise. I began to remember a certain white belt from years ago, brand new to the martial art of Karate. I had taken a year of Taekwondo, but it just didn`t compare to the years of training, strategy and application that I would encounter in this new style. Unfortunately, another thing I encountered was ignorance of what Karate actually was. Many thought it was Kung-fu, a Chinese martial art, probably due to its brand of movies being popular in American culture. Lets face it, Jackie Chan`s remake of “The KARATE Kid”, which for some reason involved a boy learning Kung-fu, didn`t help matters either. Then there are those who think that Karate is solely a Japanese style. Perhaps even to you it`s just another flurry of feet, fists and sound effects with cool choreography. If that`s the case then you need to read on.
Karate, 空手, meaning “empty hand”, is a striking art that was originally developed from the indigenous styles of the Ryukyu Islands, modern day Okinawa, Japan. After trade relations with Ming dynasty China were established in 1372, many visitors and immigrants came to Okinawa, particularly from Fujian province, bringing along Chinese styles from that area. These new arts and the original styles of Ryukyu, called te (hand), were blended together in the cauldron of multi-cultural Okinawa with a sprinkle of recent laws forbidding weapons, until Karate was born. The early styles, Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te, were named after the regions that they were developed in, a common practice as no one method existed yet and everyone followed their own guidelines. However, what we know as modern Karate continued to take shape through the efforts of masters like Sakukawa Kanga (1782-1838). Sakukawa brought back a mix of pugilism and bo-staff fighting from China, adding it to the already bubbling mix of early Karate and through he and his successors, Matsumura Sokon and later, Itotsu Anko, Shorin-ryu Karate finally emerged, a style that is one of the oldest. Gichin Funakoshi, a student of Itotsu Anko, decided to spread the popularity of Karate to Japan in the early 20th century by changing many of the technique names to Japanese as well as the style to Karate-do (do, 道, meaning “way”), adding a more philosophical aspect to the art as a path to self understanding. As he put it, “to purge oneself of selfish and evil thoughts. For only with a clear mind and conscience can the practitioner understand the knowledge which he receives.”
Whether as an art (budo 武道), sport/combat sport or self defense, Karate can be enjoyed in many ways, though the core elements of a regiment are similar. I myself learned a hybrid style that was more combat sport and self-defense oriented, with a little Aikido thrown in, yet our techniques were recognized by others in tournaments. The Karate-ka (practitioner) is expected to participate in Kihon, technique drills done in unison, learn Kata, a formalized series of movements representing offensive and defensive maneuvers, and Kumite, or sparring, literally “meeting of hands”. Kihon can focus on physical exercises like pushups or a particular kick, intending to build strength, dexterity and hand eye coordination. Kata, is a complete fighting system, memorized and carried out with attention to posture in order to train for engaging multiple attackers. There are many katas spread out over the various Karate styles ranging from simple to extremely difficult, and usually the more advanced the kata, the greater a peak you`re getting at the style`s old origins. Kumite, a favorite of mine, was basically using all that you learned in the previous drills in a monitored fight with another Karate-ka. These fights could be strictly controlled by the sensei, teacher, or shihan, master, with light punches and kicks or in case of styles like Kyokushin, full-contact strikes to the face and chest. Traditional Okinawan Karate uses additional supplementary training known as hojo undo (補助運動), tough conditioning methods that make use of stones, hemp-rope wrapped striking posts (makiwara) and weighted levers to increase ambidextrous power.
Karate was forged in international relations and tempered with an aim for perfection in bodily defense and deep human insight. It grew and continues to evolve due to the traditions, from those masters that came before, being kept safe and nurtured by the strong hands of their successors. Just look around, ask and see in many Japanese towns and there will most likely be a dojo that the locals hold in high regard. Only make sure you`re ready and willing with more than just a cardigan and dress slacks.