Hundreds of years old, arguably irrelevant in relation to its initial purpose, why does karate still appeal?
The 70s/80s wave of Asian-admiration is more or less over. Japan being a high-tech leader and a vision of the future has slightly waned over the years.
The romance for old-Japan still endures in popular culture, perhaps. For the discipline, stoicism, warrior-pride, excellence in martial arts. With that as the backdrop, the following is what keeps me coming back to the sport:
The other aspect that crops up again and again nowadays is the effectiveness of karate in ‘real combat’.
Now, understandably, generations of men and women have been raised with some degree of violence or threat in their day-to-day lives and would like to learn how to protect themselves in case the worse should happen.
When they see a karateka slowly moving through a kata (a set form) like a silver Tai-Chi practitioner in the park, it’s a world away from the knee-to-nose action of the UFC cage.
There is definitely a strong cultural aspect running through karate. The old-Japan practices of zen, mindfulness and self-control. This doesn’t exist to such a degree in boxing, MMA disciplines or similar.
Krav Maga, the Israeli Defence Force’s martial art, is purely focused on results, with no real consideration of self development. The same goes for boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (a mainstay of MMA) and other professional martial arts. Self-development does of course happen in any discipline that involves dedication and physical improvement, but in karate it’s baked into the actual syllabus.
From dojo etiquette to meditative moments, karate is full of cultural and self-developmental quirks. Even the belt system is designed to slow with progress and never actually finish within a single person’s lifetime. The black belt stripes, or dan grades, take on average as many years to obtain as their number, so 5th dan karatekas will have been training for 5+4+3+2+5 years (the last five for the first dan of the blackbelt), or 19 years total. Grand masters sometimes achieve 8th dan, adding 8+7+6 to the previous, or 40 years total. So while physical prowess may have declined after 40 years of training, mental development and discipline will be stronger than ever.
But that’s not to say that karate is ineffective. Some of the fastest rising MMA stars have karate backgrounds. Many of the most frequently used knockout moves are part of the regular karate syllabus (one-step reverse punch). Certain styles of karate tone the body for hard combat, with the Kyokushin style rivalling the ability to take body blows of Thai boxing. Others, such as Wado Ryu, incorporate Jiu-Jitsu locks, evasion and throws, enabling a varied and real-world approach to grappling and keeping distance.
As with any martial art that involves sparring, karatekas learn the combat basics of distancing, timing, attack, counter-attack and evasion. The ability of a 1st dan blackbelt to avoid a punch in a real-world situation, from an untrained adversary, would be at least double that of an untrained defendant. They have avoided several thousand punches of all kinds in their training. They will also then know whether it’s worth responding with an attack, lock or even a further attempt to de-escalate, because they will be confident of their own ability yet also able to evaluate that of their attacker.
They will have learned many of the ‘dirty tricks’ that street fighters use, if their training has a real-world component, as many dojos offer. This gives a further edge over the untrained adversary.
When it comes to combat between two or trained combattants, all bets are off, as the levels and styles of training produce too many variables to predict the outcome. Any mistake can be capitalised on by either trained opponent. As such, most well trained martial artists are likely to prefer de-escalation and self-preservation over ‘proof of might’ contests. They have invested a lot of time, money and effort into cultivating their practice, or even their art, and most would realise the risk of a long-term injury is very high in a no-holds barred fight.
So in summary, as a way to gain an edge over an untrained assailant, karate can provide this. It takes time, as with any martial art, but it is completely possible. As for a way to gain an edge over other martial arts, that is up for debate. I’ll outline a few points below.
Not that you’re likely to see two highly trained martial artists fight, because if it’s not paid or educational there’s generally no point for them to risk their joints and bones. But if you were to, as an interesting thought experiment, I’ll set out some thoughts here.
As mentioned above, karate is a mix of the cultural and the martial. You will learn how to break knee-caps and collapse windpipes, alongside learning to hear your inner thoughts landing like butterflies on cherry blossom. It’s a strange mix, but one that appeals to many in the often spiritually void West.
Of course, the spiritual aspect does little to protect you when someone lunges for your legs in a takedown, so when it comes to effectiveness, how does it compare to the others?
MMA: on the whole, karate has very little grappling work. Training in Judo, if you wanted to stay within the Japanese cultural sphere of Budo (‘the way of the warrior’) would complement karate well, but is of course another commitment in our already busy lives. MMA wins out in this respect, so the ability to keep grapplers at a distance and to attack them when they lunge is a karateka’s best bet. Trick kicks and punches not trained in boxing or other martial arts are worth considering for extra unexpected impact. Hook kicks, spinning kicks to the head, reverse punches certain punch/kick combinations etc.
Kung Fu: this is a very varied martial art and many say the basis of karate as it was imported into Japan from China. It can be fast and precise and cautious blocking and attacking is required. If karateka has a larger frame than Kung-Fu opponent, making use of body-blow endurance and damaging attacks to thighs, ribs and head ought to keep the opponent on their toes.
Thai Boxing: a very fast and powerful style designed to focus on weak points of an opponent, thus making an attacker very resilient in the face of powerful blows. Better to surprise them with the unexpected, kicks and punches they won’t have trained, involving spins, wrong-footing and feints.As with MMA, kick/punch combinations can work well if combined with the unexpected.
A massively debatable area, but certainly one of interest to many. The discussions continue.
Given the completeness of the physical and spiritual sides of the art, karate has a strong foundation and following. The federations and associations that oversee it have many political issues and fractures, but overall the art is well organised, with a handful of organisations in Japan overseeing the world’s practice of its famous export.
Karate will be coming to the Olympics from 2020, which was an exciting turn of events for many around the world. Taekwondo, the Korean martial art, has been in the Olympics for years, so it was high time, given karate’s far superior practioner base.
The Olympics will be a double-edged sword, given that competition karate looks almost pedestrian compared to the ‘Nascar’ that is MMA/UFC. But bearing the above points on the various facets of karate, hopefully people can see that in context.
Finally, the problem of the ‘McDojo’ still exists, where a tenuous link to a respected instructor is made and a school opened. Belts are handed out more or less for money and the karateka the school produces are ineffective and have little to no understanding of the self-development opportunities. This ought to be an easy problem to solve nowadays, through the internet, but not many solutions exist. I could quite easily maintain a list here on this site, of reputable schools, if it seemed worthwhile, but for now I’ll just point out the issue and ask people to exercise caution in picking their local dojo.
And that wraps up the intro to karate!
<bow> Domo arigato, arimasen