What Karate-do is and What it is not

 

     To better understand Karate-do it helps to understand the development and meaning of the word itself.  Karate-do is Japanese and is a combination of three words, (kara-te-do), but the evolution of the word Karate-do involves three languages; Uchina guchi, the language of Okinawa, Chinese, and then Japanese.

 

     It is easier to work backwards.  The word "do" means "way" in Japanese.  Most Japanese arts, not just martial arts, have the suffix of "do".  Simply put, this means "the way of doing a thing".  But, pertaining to Karate-do, it implies that the way entails "doing", with an emphasis on honor, integrity, comittment, self-discipline, and pursuit of physical health and growth in spirit and character.  Most of all, it implies the adherance to what is known as the "First Rule of Karate-do", which is "Defense Only".  "Do" is the "Moral Imperitive" of Karate.

 

     "Te" is the Japanese word for "Ti", which is the Uchina guchi (Okinawan) word for "Hand".  "Ti" is what the Okinawans called their weaponless method of fighting.  The "Budo" (way of war/combat) of "Ti" was a method of fighting with the hands in a manner that much resembled the use of swords.  It could be quite brutal and brought with it none of the constraints that "do" implies.  It was used by the Military and Royal Guard to maintain order in the newly unified Ryu Kyu Kingdom (Okinawa).  With the growing cultural, social, and economic association with China came an exposure to the Chinese Martial Arts.  The Okinawans took these arts and adopted, adapted, and combined them with "Ti".  In time, the Japanese influence on Okinawa culture would grow to the point that the Japanese word "Te" would be used as commonly as the Uchina guchi word "Ti".

 

     The word "kara" is more complicated.  In Chinese and Japanese it sounds identical but was written differently, with different meanings.  In Chinese it means "China", and in Japanese it means "empty".  As Martial Arts evolved on Okinawa, taking on the more Chinese influence, the name too evolved from "Te" (hand) to "Kara-te" (Chinese Hand).  Among the influences on technique and movement, brought by the Chinese, also came the philisophical "Moral Imperitive" developed by Confucious, Lao Tsu, and the Shaolin Monks of China and had long been an essential part of the Martial Arts there.

 

     The 1609 invasion of Okinawa by the Japanese Samurai "Satsuma" Clan, started the conversion of the culture on Okinawa to that of Japan.  There are still many cultural differences but Okinawa is now a part of Japan.  Thanks to the efforts of Funikoshi Gichin Sensei, Nakamura Shigeru Sensei and others in the first half of the 20th Century, an effort to popularize Karate-do was made.  This movement resulted in the translated meaning of Karate-do to change from "the way of the Chinese Hand" to "the way of the empty hand".  This resulted in the word "Karate-do" being written differently, but still pronounced the same.  A few of the older styles still use "China Hand", but it makes little difference as any knowledgable practitioner will know both translations.

 

     By now I am sure you can surmise that Karate-do was not a "sport", "social activity", or "hobby".  Nor is it today, but a good program is enjoyable and the contemporary practice of Karate-do does have a "sport" aspect.  However, true study of the art requires the original intent to remain as the "foundation".  Karate-do is still primarily a, sometimes brutal, combat art intended to be used in defense of one's life.  Most programs have a sport aspect of their training, these range from the ridiculous no-contact sparring to the brutal full contact sparring with little or no safety gear.  I find that training for sport competition augments the original intent quite well, if it retains a sense of realism such as full contact sparring, but with the safety provided by appropriate gear and sufficient rules to prevent injuries.

 

     It is easy to see that Karate-do is much more than just self-defense.  If self-defense is all you need or want, there are many programs out there that in 40 to 80 hours, with an occasional refresher, you can satisfy most of the self-defense needs of our contemporary society.  I have such programs myself, but they are not totally encompassing.  Karate develops character, builds and maintains a healthy body, it breeds confidence and restraint.  Honor, integrity, self discipline, respect, consideration, ambition, committment, and humility are just a few of the tennants of Karate-do.

 

     Karate-do is difficult.  To get in shape and to stay that way requires working out.  To learn the art takes repitition, the techniques must be performed numerous times.  Karate takes patience, nothing of value comes over night.  I have studied my art for many years and I know much less than I should, but I still study, with the knowledge that I will learn more.  Karate-do is a life-style, which requires committment.  That is not to say a practitioner has to live the life of a Shaolin Monk and only train and pray.  The whole purpose of Karate-do is to defend your life, so that you may live your life.  While a police officer, Karate-do has served me well, way too many times to count.  But if I had never had to use Karate-do, even one time, to defend myself, I would still train, because it makes me a better man.

 

     Now comes the part where I tell you what Karate-do is not, and what a prospective student should be wary of.

 

    Karate-do is not Tae Kwon Do, that is a sport comprised of techniques modified to score points.  These modifications have resulted in greater speed but weakened the effectiveness of the techniques considerably.  Many Tae Kwon Do schools use the word Karate in their signage and literature, this is intentionally misleading.  Some do teach more traditional Korean Arts, as well for self defense but a legitimate Tae Kwon Do Dojang (school) would not call it Karate.  This is not unique to Tae Kwon Do, other Martial Arts use the word Karate as well when their art doesn't originate on Okinawa, these arts may be legitimate arts but you are being decieved by a less than honorable school owner, trying to attract a prospective student.

 

     The words Karate and Karate-do, are specific to Martial Arts from Okinawa and are weaponless.  The study of Okinawa Weapons is called "Kobudo".  Many Karate Dojo (schools) teach Kobudo as well.  If the teacher references the study of weapons as Karate instead of Kobudo, be careful of his credentials.  He either doesn't know what he should or he doesn't care, either way he is questionable.

 

     Ultimate Fighting, Mixed Martial Arts, or any other related "sport" that trains for full contact fighting in a public venue for a purse or monetary award is not Karate-do.  These fighters may have a background in Karate but they are fighting outside their teaching.  I make no comment regarding the correctness here, just that it isn't Karate-do.

 

     Beware the McDojo.  This is a school who places more value on the cash in your pocket than the art they teach.  Many of these schools modify their program to fit what people want or expect, instead of teaching actual Karate-do.  So you probably won't get what you are paying for, and you'll pay more for it.  The following are things to look for that indicate that commerse takes priority over Karate-do and the students:

          A big, shiny, modern school that more resembles a gym or fitness center.

          More than 5 different color belts for students under Black Belt.  Especially with multiple stripes on the tips.  More levels mean more tests and that means more fees.

          Numerous different programs such as Black Belt Club, Demonstration Team(s), Competition Team(s), Leadership Program, an After School Program that more resembles day care than a Karate class.  All of which require extra fees.

          If you get a sales pitch that include the words upgrade, contracts, payment plan, or an option to pay in advance for a year at a reduced rate.

          If the Head Teacher can't provide a historical lineage back to Okinawa, or provide an up-line of his seniors.

          If the teachers in the school have different Martial Arts backgrounds than the Head Teacher.

          If there seems to be more interest in "sport karate" as indicated by the presence of numerous trophies and awards, many exceeding 6 feet tall.

          If you don't see at least a striking post known as a "makawara" or other traditional Okinawa training equipment.

          Classes for children under the age of 5.

          More than 3 different age related programs.

          Children wearing Black Belts, some good schools will award Black Belts to 16 year olds, but I don't.

If you see things like this, be careful and watch your wallet.  But I do have to say that one of the best schools in this country, run by one of the most qualified teachers outside of Okinawa in many ways resembles what I am describing here.  But if you look you'll see reasonable number of belts, traditional training equipment, and a professional approach to fees of a reasonable nature.

 

     If you are interested in a school and someone there claims to be able to do impossible things, like levitate, knock someone out without touching them, and develop the mind to a point that it is, or is close to being, psychic, run and run fast.  This person is referring to development of an internal energy called Chi or Ki, which can't be scientifically validated.  He is also making unrealistic claims as to the potential of this energy.  In all of my years, I have never seen the obvious manifistation of Chi or Ki, though the concept is very common in the Chinese Martial Arts.

 

     If you are interested in taking Karate-do or putting your child in a program, talk to the Head Teacher, check his credentials, examine the school and have his teachers describe the program to you.  Don't sign a contract until you have verified what they have told you and their credentials.  If anyone is reluctant to provide information, walk away.  In my opinion, there are more frauds, hacks, and less than qualified people teaching Karate-do than good ones.  Look for moral integrity as well as good credentials.  Look for a positive and dynamic personality, with control of his ego.

 

     Good luck in finding your dojo.  Train hard and have fun.

 

Jeffrey L. Riggs, Kaicho