“Karate doesn’t work”

Photo from Motobu Choki’s book “My Art and Skill of Karate”

“Karate doesn’t work.” – Every martial arts “expert” on the internet

You know what? They are probably right. (gasp!)

Let me explain.

The mean streets

In the infamous “street fight”, the experts have this vision in their head of a street brawler and a gi-clad karateka (karate practioner) facing off in mortal combat (you 80s and 90s kids just had a theme song pop in your heads… you’re welcome). The karateka bows, gets in a ready position and then gets in his fighting position with his rear hand drawn on his hip (i.e. nowhere near guarding his face). The brawler flies in with a wild haymaker and the karateka responds with a move from one of the many kata he’s learned and then crumples in a heap as the brawler connects his fist to the karateka‘s face. The fight is over and karate is defeated by the “streets”.

And yes, this tends to be the argument. While this may be a completely inaccurate description of karate, it might not be far off from how many karateka might respond in a such a scenario.

Fancy war dancing

Before we get into the numerous terrible assumptions about the above scenario, we need to understand one of the signature features of karate: kata.

There is an idea that kata involves facing down a horde of brittle boned ninjas. Do a funky block this way, the ninja robot explodes. Turn another way throw your fist through another ninja and then change directions again… finish and bow to all of the dead imaginary ninjas…

To non-karate practioners, kata is about as silly as the description above. They don’t see the utility. Worse, most karateka don’t know the utility of kata beyond “facing eight enemies” and the apparent explanation of the kata.

So we have a problem. The pundits claim that karate is useless, and kata teaches nothing but dangerous and stupid techniques. And most karateka lack the understanding of karate to set them straight.

At the moment, we’re left with the explanation that kata is just a fancy war dance.

So what *is* karate?

The long explanation is probably the subject of another post (or series of posts). So in short, we’ll just say that it is a complete fighting and self-defense system developed in Okinawa under a very particular set of circumstances.

So let’s come back to kata and the infamous hand on the hip.

First off, in most karate schools, students learn kata and they learn kumite (fighting), and they are separated. Depending on the style of karate, they may not know why this is the case. I certainly didn’t know learn this when I was studying karate as a kid.

The popular explanation for this outside of Okinawa is that you learn kumite to protect yourself “in the streets” and kata to maintain the traditions of the martial arts. This is completely false.

Popular YouTuber, and self-proclaimed Karate Nerd, Jesse Enkamp categorizes self defense scenarios into consensual fighting and non-consensual self defense. The scenario we outlined at the start of this post is an example of “consensual fighting”.

Kata is not designed for consensual fighting. It is designed as a lesson plan and one-person drills for specific self defense applications.

And that silly hand on the hip? That is actually doing something important.

Lost to history

So why are karateka so bad at explaining their own systems? Many times, they don’t know what they don’t know because some of those explanations, which were transmitted from person to person, were lost in a kind of diaspora to history.

Thanks to the internet, karateka across the world are able to piece together scattered bits of information that were isolated for 70 or 80 years.

It is the goal of the Shindokai Kobujutsu Research Society to join in the efforts to restore information that was lost about the traditional Okinawan martial arts and elevate their status legitimate self defense systems that are applicable to our times. In some cases, we can piece together bits of information that is scattered around the world like a bunch of forensic historians. In other cases, we just have to experiment with concepts, just like the forbearers of karate did, and figure out what actually works (and ditch the rest).

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