Criticisms Of Karate

Having recently posted about why Korean martial arts are held in low regard, it seemed only fair to look at the criticisms levelled at my own primary art of Karate, and Shotokan Karate in particular.

Me, at 17 when I first started. Try not to laugh!

Back when I started in the late 70’s, there was nowhere near as many styles, associations or clubs as there are today and there seemed to be even more rivalry as people stuck more rigidly to their own style with less cross training then there is today.  It was a bit more like little empires!

Anyway, Karate was one of the most popular martial arts of the day and of all the different styles, Shotokan was the most widely practised.  It seemed that if anybody wanted to make a case for their own style, they would do so by comparing it with Shotokan and obviously putting Shotokan in a bad light compared to their own style. It’s part of human nature that many people like to knock the establishment and in the martial arts world then, Shotokan probably being the biggest single style kind of represented “the establishment”!

Ok, so lets take a look at what people say and see if it has any merits!

It’s Stiff And Wooden:
This is levelled at Karate in general and Shotokan in particular.  I’ve heard so many so called “knowledgeable” martial artists pontificate on how their style is superior over the years as they relax into their technique whereas we go so very very tense and stiff!

So is this a valid criticism?  Well sometimes!

The Chinese martial arts which Okinawan martial arts are largely based on are generally very relaxed and fluid.  Then along came Shotokan in the post war years with a lot of emphasis on tension at the end of the technique in the name of “kime” (focus).  Our Japanese masters would tell us that as we progressed, so we should increase the tension more and more at the end of the technique and so we aimed to do so.

Shihan Kousaku Yokota, in his book Shotokan Myths, observes that in the early of Karate kata competition in Japan, the competitor would want to show the judges that he/she were focusing (kime) at the right places.  To demonstrate this clearly, they started exaggerating the tension more and more till they looked like what Yokota describes as “bronze statues”.  This is why we got the label of stiff and wooden!

However, many schools and even associations have over the years changed this to a more relaxed method.  The Japanese Shotokan legend Master Hirokazu Kanazawa also studied Tai Chi.  This influenced his Karate and through his own association the Shotokan Karate International he taught a more relaxed fluid version.  He openly promoted Tai Chi alongside Karate which influenced many other Shotokan Karateka of other associations (including me) to explore Tai Chi as well.

Master Tetsuhiko Asai followed a similar path, studying White Crane Kung Fu.  He took the whip like technique of White Crane and added it to his own Karate method.  This is at the base of his own school, the Shotokan Asai Ryu.

Many other Karateka have since cross trained in other styles as the idea of cross training has grown in popularity and brought back similar influences with them.  Many schools of Shotokan today now practice a much more relaxed and fluid version of their style.  I myself don’t even teach people to tense at the end of a technique any more, I teach that their arm should be taut, rather than tense, at the end of a punch!  I know others who have a similar approach.  It has to be said though that not all do it this way; so the criticism is still valid in many schools and associations, but by no means all!

Tramlines:
I must admit, I haven’t heard this for a long time, but it was a common accusation at one time that Shotokan Karateka would only move backward and forward, not making any use of sidestepping or evasions.  As if on a “tramline”!

I never really thought this was a fair criticism.  For the first several gradings, the pre-arranged sparring sequence would just move backward and forward as described.  But this was just about learning distance and timing.  As we got about mid way up the grades, so we’d start using side steps and evasions and as far as I’m aware, they’ve always been there.

They Don’t Like A Punch On The Nose:
This one mainly comes from boxers.  In fairness I think it’s aimed at most traditional martial artists, but I’ve only directly heard it aimed at Karate when talking to boxers.

Well first of all . . . . . doh!
Who does like a punch on the nose?  It’s like me saying boxers don’t like a kick in the b***s!  Of course they don’t, neither would I.

I will say in fairness though, many people studying traditional martial arts are not used to being hit hard.  Most traditional martial arts train to semi-contact or even no-contact rules, so there’s a lot of martial artists who are not used to receiving a hard blow.  In my early of training, contact was a bit harder.  That said, it was soft on beginners, and gradually got harder as we progressed and became more capable.  But again in honesty, we may have made solid contact with the body but certainly held back with the face.

Having said that, the earlier competitions could be a bit . . . . well . . . lively, if you know what I mean!

But we have to be honest.  Traditional martial artists often criticise mixed martial arts as being a sport and not designed for the street.  Whilst this is true, anybody who steps into the ring or cage, is going to train hard to take the punishment they expect to receive.  Most traditional martial artists train for an hour or 2 a week, whereas cage fighters are training almost every night.  Some traditional martial artists train most nights too, but they’re very much in the minority.  So in my opinion this is, in the main, a valid criticism.

Me receiving the delicate touch of Sensei John Johnston at an applied martial arts seminar. Felt like a grappling move to me!!

No Good For Grappling: 
Karate does have grappling aspects including throwing, take downs, grabbing/restraining and joint locking techniques.  That said, they are secondary to striking and kicking.  Because of MMA, people like to compare styles and often dismiss things quickly without a proper understanding of it.  Karate was not designed to fight athletes in a sports arena.  It was designed to fight thugs in a street arena!  So the primary emphasis on striking/kicking is a good idea as it’s the quickest way to dispense with an opponent.  If you face multiple opponents, while you’re grappling with one, his mate will probably be hitting you on the back of the head with a bottle from behind.  In a ring where the most dangerous strikes are not allowed and you have to wear gloves, of course a grappler will have an advantage.  Our main weapons are taken away and the rules favour their way of fighting.

Furthermore, Karate’s “grappling” techniques are basically to escape from holds/grabs etc, so as to put the Karateka in a position to either restrain a thug or allow the Karateka to use the primary weapons of striking.  They are not designed for submission wrestling as in today’s sporting context.  Even Japanese Ju Jutsu, which is one of the oldest “grappling” styles puts a lot of emphasis on striking.  It is only the more modern sport based versions such as Brazilian Ju Jutsu which places most emphasis on grappling and groundwork.

The situation is further exacerbated in that many Karate schools/associations focus solely on sport Karate, where no grappling is allowed at all; so those Karateka will not even practice the grappling moves that are inherent within Karate!  Gasp!!

So in conclusion, yes, Karate is a bit limited at grappling in the modern context, but the modern context is based on a sporting paradigm.  However,  it is functional when the rules are removed.

Too Much Time Punching The Air:
The argument being that it can be bad for joints and that we don’t get used to the impact.
The original Okinawan training, and even early training in Japan put a lot of emphasis on hitting the makawawa.  However, in the West when we’re hiring church halls and the likes, we can’t install makawawa’s.  We do have the option of focus mitts.  However, although their will be exceptions, overall I’d have to say that this criticism is fair in most cases.

The Stances Are Too Low, Rigid And Impractical: 
The low stance accusation used to be particularly aimed at Shotokan, even by other styles of Karate.  However, whether the accusation is that stances are too low, too rigid or too impractical; the answer is the same.  It’s a quote by Funakoshi:

“Beginners must master low stance and posture, natural body positions are for the advanced”.

The formal stances are used to learn the body mechanics and structures.  Once these are learned, the Karateka can apply them from natural positions rather than a formal stance.  These stances are training methods and not required in a formal manner when applying the technique in a real manner.

Kata Is A Waste Of Time
As TKD/TSK and Kung Fu have their equivalent practice of their own patterns/forms, they are not usually the ones making this charge.  Ironically, it often comes from ex-Karateka or more modern styles.

Kata has a great deal to offer on many different levels.  As well as obviously being a catalogue of methods and principles for combat, it also trains the student on other levels.  This includes body mechanics/structures, self awareness and mind set.  These different levels of training have been discussed in an earlier post.

Now I have to accept that in many cases, it might be a waste of time, depending on how the particular school trains.  If you look properly in the applications of the kata, leave out the formality of solo practice and pressure test what you practice; then Kata can be a very useful tool for real self defence.  However, if Kata are used simply as formal exercise for passing gradings; or you practice applications that rely of on a compliant partner attacking in a certain pre-arranged manner (as many Japanese instructors teach), then Kata is of limited use.  Still good for learning body mechanics/structures, self awareness and mind set; but limited in real world applications.

No disrespect to anybody, but this is one of the reasons why I was happy to keep my own Karate School away from single style Japanese dominated associations and am now registered with the British Combat Karate Association  where we have more autonomy (yes, that was a shameless plug)!

As an aside, you might find this short interview with Eric Henry interesting.  He’s a traditional martial artist turned pro MMA, so knows both sides of the coin.  He talks about how he finds Kata training helps in the ring:

Partner Practice Is To Ritualistic, Hence Unrealistic
Like Kata, partner practice works on different levels.  In Shotokan, we usually start with 5 Step Sparring (Gohon Kumite), where the attacker steps back, announces their attack, then steps forward with 5 of the nominated attacks, whilst the defender steps back 5 times, blocking then counter attacking on the final one.

It’s very easy to tear this apart.  Attackers don’t step back first they step in and they don’t announce their attack.  Defenders use big blocking movements rather than simply parrying to the side and they step back 5 times which is not a good practice in real life.  Whilst there is obviously validity to these criticism, they are training methods only.  They teach timing and distancing and should not be regarded as a realistic method of attack and defence.

As the student advances, a greater range of attacks is included, the student is given more freedom to choose the particular blocks/counters that suit them and they learn to move at different angles.  Again the practice is ritualistic and pre-arranged; but it teaches good structure, distancing, angles of counter attack and different techniques.

Then of course we advance to semi free sparring (jiyu ippon kumite) which is still pre-arranged with the attacker still announcing their attack, but done more from a free style position with both parties able to move around as if sparring.  Along with pre-mentioned skills, we learn to move quickly to evade, use more realistic parries, apply the body mechanics and structures but without having to rely on formal stances (as mentioned above) and it’s usually more adrenalised as it’s higher grades coming in very fast!

Even the semi free sparring is criticised by some as the starting distance is unrealistic as real fights usually start closer in and for the rituals of bowing, starting from Yoi (ready) position, etc.

However, this is a model for developing skills in a logical and methodical manner.  I’m not saying it’s the best, but it is still quite effective and gets the adrenaline going when somebody is coming in fast and furious.  If we want to be totally realistic, then we should just have a real fight!  But if we want to train in way that we’re still fit to go to work the next day, then we need some safety rules put in.  The ritualistic parts serve to make sure that both participants know exactly what they are doing, what part of the exercise they are at and with the mental preparation.  They give a non verbal communication that they are ready to commence.

High grade Karateka can move with speed and power, and do a lot of damage if their strike/kick connects with the target.  They generally move faster than Joe Thug who might be attacking, so the added distance gives a safety feature too.

So overall, I don’t think this is a completely very valid criticism though it does contain some truths.

That said, some people have developed more “street-like” pre-arranged sparring patterns.  Iain Abernethy has his kata based sparring, and  Vince Morris has his own close quarters version of one-step.  Karate should grow and adapt and I like these progressions.  But just because these may be improvements, it doesn’t (in my humble opinion) mean that the older versions are necessarily bad.  They still serve a good purpose.

Conclusion 
In the main, it depends on who you train with as to whether any/all of the above criticisms are valid or not.  I’ll be the first to admit that much of Karate has been dumbed down (as have most traditional arts); not just in the West, but in the East too.  Sometimes more so in the East as their culture prevents them from questioning as much.  Many of the criticisms are valid to people who are still training in the fully dumbed down version of the art.  However, many people have set out to explore the true meaning of the art and reinvented it in a much more practical manner, negating the criticisms above.  It was largely my own search along those lines that lead in part to this website being created to help other people on that same path.

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