Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Is karate a "striking" art?

My brother is fond of saying that karate is a "counterstriking" art. However I know that he really means a “countering” art, since karate counters are by no means confined to "striking". Rather, he uses “striking” (and more specifically “counterstriking”) in order to distinguish karate from those arts which are predominantly about grappling. Put another way, the reference to “striking” is not intended to imply any exclusivity in terms of striking (as opposed to locking/taking down etc.) in a counter. Indeed it is a critical mistake to label (or apply) karate as just a “striking” art since it misapprehends karate’s function....

Examples of true “striking” arts are boxing, Muay Thai and savate. Each of these is almost exclusively about landing blows. While I can see why the uninitiated might see karate in the same light, the way in which karate techniques were intended to operate is fundamentally different.

Karate (not just goju/Naha-te, but shorin-based systems as well - if you look at their kata bunkai) is fundamentally about "setting up" in the melee range for a counter (see my article on the “melee” range) - whether it be a counterstrike or a takedown or a lock etc. In this regard karate is actually not that different from the atemi waza of jujutsu (see for example this jujutsu blog). In fact the same can be said of all original Okinawan and Japanese civilian defence arts. The fact that many such systems don't reflect that today is, to me, a function of a sports influence - particularly from the ’60s onwards.

Many have commented to me that even some goju-based karate systems (of which ours is one) seem to focus squarely on striking: their practitioners do the ubiquitous "dart in and out" type of fighting which eschews blocking/deflection (never mind grappling) and concentrates on landing blows. It is a combat approach summed up with the expression “ikken hitsatsu”, or “single blow, certain defeat”. This is in sharp contrast to our approach where “anything goes”.

What explains this disparity?

My view is that many modern karate schools are invariably influenced by the movement (from the 30s onwards) to popularise karate and the closely related modern-era “ippon shobu” (single point) sports karate tradition. These have, in my view, served to dilute karate to a point where its application in sparring looks nothing like its kata/basics (eg. see my article about “Why blocks DO work” for a discussion as to how and why karate basic blocks are not applied in most schools today).

Certainly I have friends in both Okinawan and Japanese goju-ryu who practise what they variously term “iri kumi” or “jiyu kumite” exactly as we practise our (melee-based) randori sparring. However, as a very popular and widespread style, goju-ryu, like many other schools of karate, obviously has a wide base of examples to draw from. And (in line with my popularisation/sports discussion) it has a large number of practitioners who do the "dart in and out" thing.

So what factors led to the development of this sparring method? In my opinion it comes down to 2 factors:

(a) the non-contact format of modern-era competiton (in keeping with popularising karate); and

(b) the "aesthetic appeal" on the Japanese mainland of the “ikken hitsatsu” methodology: There is something about the clean lines and power of “ippon shobu” competition that I believe had/has great appeal in Japan (perhaps as an allegorical or subconscious reference the deadly cut of the samurai sword), where otherwise this phenomenon would not have arisen in, say, the West or even in other parts of the Orient.

By contrast, when you consider the "old time footage" below of sambon kumite (a basic drill), any technical photographs or written or oral historical sources(which indicate that "free-sparring" in karate is itself a modern innovation) you get the feeling that whatever it was/is technically, karate was never intended to be applied in the modern “dart in and out” method.

Old footage of "sambon" (3 step) kumite - a basic karate drill

Historical sources confirm to me that karate was always intended to be applied in a melee - to deflect/evade while simultaneously setting up a counter, be it a strike, a throw/takedown or a joint lock. It was never about swapping punches and kicks, particularly from a distance. Rather, it has always been about dealing with the critical moment: when someone throws a strike, kick or other attack against you (a point that is, by definition, already in the “melee” range).

It is for this reason that my primary instructor has always maintained that karate is a civilian defence system not a sport. The objective in karate isn’t to score a point. The objective in a civilian defence system is, first and foremost not to get hit. As I’ve said elsewhere, while in a sport like boxing you have to land a blow to win, in self-defence you “win” provided you don’t get hit. Having said this, it is dangerous to deflect and evade and do no more. The most effective defence is to neutralise your opponent. So you should deflect/evade for the purpose of setting yourself up for a counter. In other words, karate, like most traditional self-defence systems, is a countering art.

Am I reinterpreting karate? I doubt it. My parent schools (right up to Morio Higaonna’s IOGKF and beyond) provide proof of a continuing tradition. To the extent that I have studied Chinese martial arts and these have influenced my movement and approach, I consider this to be delving into the origins and application of the techniques that comprise karate (at least to some extent). Concepts such as deflection etc. might have subtle differences in expression in Okinawa vs. China - but in the end they have more in common than not. They provide (generally speaking) a common tactical approach that is completely at odds with, say, boxing. That is to say, most (particularly Southern) Chinese systems are "melee" setup arts specialising in deflection/evasion and counter. I don't know if I've seen any that might qualify as "striking" arts in the sense of sport-based systems such as boxing or Muay Thai. And nowhere in Okinawan karate (kata or basics) do I see any suggestion of the "dart in and out" methodology of sport karate... no applications, no old footage - nothing.

Historians are fairly clear that karate was simplified for mass consumption; maybe not in kata or basics but certainly in its application. The fact that my argument might "fly in the face" of many schools' teaching today is entirely explicable (and, in my view, most easily understood) in that light. Nothing in my experience and research supports what I have elsewhere referred to as "bouncing kumite" or "faux boxing" as a legitimate application of karate techniques.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic