I am a practising student of Karate and have been doing so for a long time. I first studied Shotokan for around 7 months when I was a kid and then after a long gap, studied kalaripayattu for 2 years. After another long gap, I studied WTF Taekwondo for a few years and got a first dan black belt. These days, I train in Okinawan Goju ryu.

I moved from Taekwondo which I saw purely as a sport rather than martial art. Both of these contribute to fitness, a sense of self worth, and offer a way to find a circle of like minded friends. However, only the latter provides a genuine way to learn how to fight and provides a vehicle for an almost spiritual change. Those are my motivations for going into martial arts and it’s the reason why I moved away from Taekwondo even after I spent quite a bit of time earning a black belt.

One avenue for this is combat sport oriented martial arts like BJJ and muay thai. However, I like the technicality and softer aspects of Karate and wanted to find a good master to teach me that. I found such a person and over the past few years have been practising Okinawan goju ryu. More on that in a later post.

Karate is traditionally taught by studying basics (kihon) like punches, kicks, blocks. These are combined and stylised into a fixed series of moves called a kata. A kata is usually a series of moves (e.g. block, counter punch, block, counter kick). They are traditionally taught with a breakdown or interpretation (bunkai). A dedicated and thoughtful practitioner will, over time, be able to understand how the various things fit in together and figure out how to make the series of moves practical. As an example, this is the first black belt kata in goju ryu called Seyunchin

The corresponding bunkai is

With a good partner, this is an excellent pedagogical technique and one that has been tested over the years. It also embodies the aphorism “karate ni sente nashi” (there is no first strike in Karate). Almost all kata start with a block or another defensive move and then moves forward to end the fight quickly and efficiently. It also allows constraints inside which one can get creative.

Essentially, you learn the alphabet (kihon), the grammar (kata) and then learn how to apply these to handle real world situations (bunkai). Over time, you develop instincts to move forward by yourself. All good.

But now, comes the question of sports. There are two kinds of karate contests. The first is the kata contest. This is a solo or group performance of a kata. Judges award points based on various criteria like technical skill, athletic performance etc. It’s a visual treat to see high quality kata performance especially at the world level. The first example that comes to mind is Rika Usami performing the kata called Chatanyara Kushanku here

However, thanks to the judging criteria, this is more or less like a dance. If you compare the way in which Higaonna (who’s not a fan of sports competition) above does seyunchin and how a sports contestant does the same kata, the differences become clear. Now, this is not say that the athletes are, in some way, worse than the master. No. My point is that performance kata and kata for teaching techniques are not completely aligned and have diverged quite a bit.

The second is the kumite contest which is a bout or a fight. Sports karate contests are semi contact so you don’t actually hit the opponent. You hold back but if you didn’t, the blow would be fatal and it’s for this that you’re awarded points. This allows a “traditional” sports style timed bout with multiple rounds to be balanced with the idea of karate as a defensive martial art. Opponent attacks, you dodge or block and then counter attack. Referee interrupts, awards you points for your manoeuvre and the first starts again. The fights get extremely technical but if you’re an MMA or a boxing fan, these look rather childish

Now, if you’re looking to study karate as a fighting system, the sports line is not going to serve your purpose. A more traditional approach would be better but unfortunately, most places emphasise the sports angle a lot since that’s what young students are looking for. Older adults who want to get harder gravitate towards muay thai and bjj so karate is left with children who treat it a like a sport and masters who need to satisfy them.

On the overall, I think the seemingly weird kumite that’s part of the contests are an ingenious way of converting traditional karate into a modern sport but there should be no illusion that it’s just a sport with very rigid artificial rules.

As for traditional karate, it’s hard and very demanding. I can’t think of a better way to summarise this than to post a clip here of how a traditional 80 year old master trains.

Train hard and good luck!

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