Friday, July 11, 2014

10 Things Karate Must Do...

To Be Taken Seriously As A Martial Art

A while back I was in a discussion about karate and bunkai. Unlike most of my conversations on that topic, I was the only karateka participating. It provided an interesting window on how karate is viewed by long  term practitioners of other martial arts. The bottom line was that they could not take karate seriously as a martial art.

There were a number of reasons (all addressed below), however they didn't have much of a problem with the actual bunkai itself. Rather, they were critical of the way the bunkai was being practiced. In many ways a suitable alternative title for this article could have been "How to be a good Uke". (In the text of this article "Uke" always refers to the partner assigned the role of "attacker".)

Their main issues revolved around the fact that “no real attacker will throw karate punches”. So that seems like the place to start.

No “Karate Punches”

1) Defend against face punches, because nobody throws punches at your chest.

In real self defense most punches will be to the face. Usually starting on the left side of the face (because 90% of people are right handed). Nobody ever aims at the chest. Yet in class after class (and video after video) that is exactly what we see... It is EXTREMELY important to practice against what people ACTUALLY do in the real world. One can see from Motobu shinshii's books that he was aware that head punches were the realistic likelihood.

In real self-defense, anytime an opening strike is directed to the torso it MUST be assumed to be a knife/shank/pointy-thing attack. Nobody punches to the tummy as an opening gambit, so treat the hand like a knife (because it probably is holding one whether you see it or not).

2) If you aren't USING the "hiki-te" don't do it.

The hikite is the hand which pulls to the hip which is seen in many kata. In old-style karate this is usually meant to be some sort of limb control, usually trapping an opponent's arm. If you are not using the hikite for limb control DON'T DO IT. When Motobu shinshii wasn't using a hand he kept it in a center-line guard. This is a very good option, but not the only one. Using the free hand to cover one side of the head is another decent option. IMHO bunkai and self-defense practice should never include the one-hand-on-the-hip posture (if the hand on the hips isn't actively being used).

3) Uke should have his non-attacking hand up in a guard.

 Uke should keep his free-hand up protecting one side of the face (instead of having the hand on the hip). In the real world some attackers swing wildly without protecting their head. Others have more foresight and try keep their head protected while attacking... It is the later group that we need to understand how to deal with. So have the attacker keep his free hand up in a guard to protect the head. Oddly Motobu shinshii didn't seem to require this of his partners (despite being aware that the defender should never have one hand on the hip (unless it is being used). I am at a loss as to why he didn't insist on this with both defender and attacker.

4) Practice against wide punches. 

Karate heavily favors straight punches. So predictably karateka spend much time practicing against straight punches. However, in the real world a great many people throw rather wide punches (round-house punches, hay-makers, big over-hand rights, etc).  Therefore it is essential to spend a fair amount of practice time defending on the inside-line. In addition it is very important to practice methods of transitioning from the inside-line to the outside-line which is where much of Okinawan karate is meant to function. Motobu Choki shinshii's books show that he was well aware of this problem and practiced a significant percentage of waza from the inside-line

What not to do

No Zombie Attacks (Dead Kumite)

I borrowed the term Zombie Attacks from Dan Djurdjevic's excellent article: 
Attack of the Zombies

5)  Uke should always try throw a second (and third) punch.

People don't usually throw a single punch (although it certainly sometimes happens). Nor do they usually throw a continuous frenzy of punches nonstop without punctuation (although this too certainly sometimes happens). Rather people usually tend to throw punches in bursts of two or three punches... These bursts can come very close together, which subjectively can almost seem continuous but objectively there are usually brief punctuations when a beat or two are skipped (as the opponent evaluates relative position etc).

Real world experience and indirect information via anecdote and video footage of assaults and real fights, leads me to the supposition that the most commonly seen variants of the "short burst" are the two punch combination in the form of a left jab and right cross, and the three punch combination in the form of the big-right, big-left, big-right. The big-right, big-left, big-right combo tends to have more power and commitment than the jab-cross, but also travels a bit slower (due to the need to mobilize body-mass behind the punches which is not characteristic of a jab).

There are techniques in karate which are meant to automatically provide cover for a second and third punch.  Likewise there are techniques designed to "shut down" the opponent's offense before they throw a second or third punch. However wonderfully effective  these methods may be, the only way to see if they are working is to have your partner ATTEMPT a second (and third) punch. Without this actual feedback from an attempt to hit you with a second and third blow it is very unlikely that even the best techniques will succeed in the way they are meant to... So, the majority of one's training against a punch should be done with the partner intent on delivering a second and third strike... and actually attempting them.

6) Uke should attempt to parry/block your strikes.

In his summary of some of the wisdom passed on to him by Motobu Choki shinshii, Nagamine shinshii had this to say:

"The fact is that we should not assume any discontinuation of the opponent's movements since he would, in an actual situation, likely continue his movements, and perhaps emerge the victor. Our attitude in practicing prearranged kumite should, therefore , be based strongly on the premise that our opponent is likely to try to block our counterattack and continue to fight"

Motobu shinshii railed against  "dead kumite" (in this case "kumite" means "prearranged techniques") in which Uke fails to attempt to throw multiple strikes and does not actively attempt to parry/block the defender's counter-attack(s). In other words Motobu Choki shinshii hated seeing people train against "zombie attacks".

Learning how to exploit an opponent's natural defensive reactions (for instance by trapping and controlling an opponent's blocking hand) is an important aspect of self-defense and an extremely useful fighting skill.

7) Uke must throw techniques with penetration.

This one is totally self explanatory. Your uke must throw techniques with at least 3 or 4 inches of penetration past the surface of your  body. This changes the options that are possible and far too often I see people "blocking" punches that would never even make contact. This is totally unrealistic and creates a false sense of security. If you don't parry, the punch should connect and push you back a bit (using a safe level of speed and force of course).

Situational Realism

8) Start at close range.

You should spend a large portion of partner training working at a range where your partner does not need to step to land a punch. If he can't reach you without stepping he is too dang far away. This is the range most real assaults or altercations start at (and often where they end at).  At this range parries must be very economical and the use of tactile sensitivity is important to maximize accuracy in both offense and defense (meaning that some sort of contact should be quickly established and ideally maintained (although which parts of the bodies are in contact can be constantly changing).

Real self-defense/fighting happens within arm's reach. The other stuff is just full-contact dancing.

9) Start from a natural stance (must initially block inward).

It is very likely that you will be in a normal standing position when attacked. It is therefore very important to spend a large percentage of one's time training to defend from that position. If training at close range from a natural standing position, the initial parrying technique -must- be with an inward motion. It is literally the only option that will work against a quick strike (in that scenario, which as pointed out, is a very likely one).

close-range shizentai

10)  Occasional practice in regular clothes

This is important, because clothing can change how effective techniques are and which techniques are even possible. But psychologically it is important too, because you need to associate the skills you are building as something you have access to outside of "suiting up". I know people who pitch better in a baseball uniform than in a tee-shirt and shorts (which should offer greater freedom of movement). Why would that be? Because they only ever pitch in uniform.

However, practicing in your normal daily dress can be important for another reason. Doing so can help you evaluate techniques. Techniques that look quite reasonable when performed by, and on, people wearing a karate gi can easily fail to pass the "laugh test" when seen being done in regular clothing. If you have access to a camera or even just a webcam, film yourself practicing techniques in regular clothing. When you watch the footage ask yourself if it looks like you are practicing self-defense/fighting? Or does it look like you are practicing karate?

If it doesn't look like you are practicing self-defense/fighting then you almost certainly are NOT doing so.

I sincerely hope this article is received in the spirit it is offered, as advice for future practice, not criticism of anyone or anyone's current practice. We all need to look for ways to improve the way we practice, and friends can tell each other the truth, even when it might not be something they want to hear.


  1. My hat is off to Ryan Parker as this short article is a concise reality check to bring forth the correct and truer perceptions from the Ryukyu Kingdom age arts before the new aka chan karate veil was put in place. The worlds perception of the Karate norm exported to the Japanese Mainalnd and thus the world is not without its earned demerits. In the last 20 years we have seen a movement to go back to the old and more correct methods. This written work is a great step to putting the actual Ryukyu/Okinawan art back on a realistic, practical, and efficient road to its truer place among arts as relevant to today as they were in ancient times. Thank you Parker Sensei.

  2. Dear Sensei
    Thank you very much for the wonderful article. I am interested to know whether there was any Okinawan styles resembling Muay Thai?

  3. Ryan, I completely agree with you. These are points I have been bringing out to students over the last several decades. Although we must accept that some people in karate are doing an art rather than self-defense, that does not mean the art cannot emulate self-defense more closely. In an attempt to balance art and SD, we may have to gradually creep up on the points you raise (one drill using double attacks, another using closer distances, for example), but that does not mean we cannot consider at least one of these points in every ippon kumite or bunkai practice.

  4. While I totally agree with these principles, and recognize the inconsistency with which they are applied in a typical dojo, I have to take issue with the title of the post. Is it important to do these things so that Karate will be 'taken seriously' by the martial arts community at large, or is it important to do these things because they make sense and will help karateka, and other martial artists to develop strong jutsu and goshin? If anyone, of any fighting style, philosophy or endeavour were more concerned about what others think of their efforts than they were with whether their own efforts are bearing fruit, it seems like they have a bigger problem than they realize.

    1. Kamil I have to admit the title was used because I knew it would be read by more people if I gave it this title... I think these issues should be considered and so I hope it will be read widely. The title I would have given it (if I wasn't concerned with getting it read by the most karateka possible) is "Training Realistically And How To Be A Good Uke".

    2. For what its worth, the title is attracting interest in the way I hoped it might... It has been up less than 24 hours and already has more views than any other article on the blog (actually it is rapidly approaching double the article with the next highest number of views).

  5. I think my biggest issue with Karate is the use of uniforms and belts and Kyu/Dan ranking system, borrowed from Judo. Karate was originally from Kung Fu, or at least borrowed plenty from it, and Kung Fu never used specially made uniforms like the Keikogi and Obi, or used the Kyu/Dan ranking system, which is from Go. Kung Fu and early Karate practiced in plain clothes, or with only enough for modesty according to early pictures of Uechi Ryu practice, and Kung Fu schools used titles to denote rank. I feel fighting skills aren't something one could easily put a numbered grade on, and the Kyu/Dan ranking system was made for the game of Go and for the sport aspect of Judo, which are non-combative. And I do think that wearing a uniform like the keikogi further separates martial arts practice from reality, along with the belt system, by creating a psychological environment where one wears a different set of clothes for a different function when fighting doesn't care about that, and when the keikogi would be of a different make than street clothes.

    1. Completely agree Alexander Ahn. Although realistically I don't see it changing any time soon. I do most of my training and have shot all my recent videos in everyday clothes and intend to keep doing so (although I'll probably eventually film a few more in a gi too, just because I know that is what people expect).

  6. Hello first time posting, and I do disagree with a couple of things but that is beside the point.
    I think that part of the problem that karate has, is that there are many people who don't make it through just simple basics and practice. Since they only learned parts of the art and not all of it they assume that it doesn't work.
    Also the karate that most people see is sport, the most common sport karate is point sparring (at least here in Texas). This faux boxing (term from Dan Djurdjevic) that makes no use of skills and techniques that are practice makes karate look ridicules. These are just a couple of my thoughts.

  7. I teach combatives to LEO's, CO's, and others who know violence intimately. Your post is pretty good. I will caution you however, on your assumptions about real violence. It can be frenzied depending on the actors and the setting. Edged weapon attacks in particular are almost always frenzied and adrenaline-fueled.

  8. From the 'not to do' video..I don't know who's worse..the attacker or the defender??

  9. Superb article thank you Sensei Ryan

  10. Great post that emphasize what I teach evenif Im a shotokan instructor
    I'll follow your very valuable karate posts

  11. Yes, I agree with you @Ryan Parker. I saw a video of Walker somewhere and see some kinds of martial arts he is using. Though I don't have much idea about the Martial Arts but starting training on that. Recently I have ordered a personal guide as “Hard as Nails” for me on martial arts written by "Phil Milner" from "WKC Martial Arts Supplies". Thanks...

  12. This is a great post. I completely agree that more than one punch needs to be thrown.

  13. Anyone knows karate training center in Las Pinas?