Is Shotokan karate a fighting art? It depends. Because the way we fight depends on our training routines. Therefore, Shotokan karateka must choose the right way to practice fighting. By Michael Ehrenreich
You can only fight the way you practiceMiyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy
If we travel through the Shotokan world we will observe a very common picture. All over the globe, Shotokan Karatekas commit to a very high level of technical skills. This commitment reflects the emphasis of the early (Japanese) instructors. Teaching proper techniques was at the center of their agenda. Over the course of the decades, it has been increasing. The reason for this development is the standardized set-up and structure of Shotokan classes. A strict regime like the trias of Kihon, Kata, and Kumite leads to technically highly skilled Karatekas eventually.
Our ability to fight, on the other hand, has been declining for decades. This is not a mystery. It is the direct outcome of the focus of Karate Training. Because we fight the way we practice!
What does fighting mean?
Fighting in Competitions
What do I mean by “fighting”? Firstly, there are different types of fighting in competitions. Different associations apply different fighting rules. I competed in the JKA-Shobu-Ippon system for over twenty years and I still like that way of competing the most. But there are many other forms and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. As a competitor, you need to practice depending on the requirements of the rule-system of our associations. While all systems share similarities, an athlete needs to focus on the distinct arrangements of his competition model or he will face disadvantages. Just as there are commonalities between football and rugby, the corresponding athletes will focus their practice towards the requirements of their discipline.
Fighting for Belt Tests
Secondly, we have “fighting” requirements for belt tests. The whole procedure is predetermined. Both partners know exactly what to do and what the other will do. Distance, timing, and often the techniques become defined up front. Distance in traditional competitions, means that the opponents are about one leg-length apart. The roles of the attacker and the defender determine the timing. The announcement of the attacker takes place in advance. We are usually required to apply a single attack, maintaining our position after the action and also keeping the distance. More often than not, the defender needs to move back a whole step, while blocking with one arm and countering with the other. This basic pattern is the same for all belt levels.
Fighting for Self-Defense
Lastly, we have street fighting or self-defense. The situation here is unlike the ones previously described. It is dynamic and we do not know much in advance. The variables are always different; scenarios are constantly changing, and there are no rules.
In general, self-defense comprises four aspects. First, the distance in a self-defense situation includes the close-quarter (arms-length) distance. Second, hitting power is essential. Third, decisive action is an important asset. Fourth and foremost, there are risks for us of getting seriously injured or worse. Hence, the requirements of real fighting situations must have consequences for our karate practice.
For instance, the training distance must change. Physical action usually happens at very close striking distance, which would consequently require a certain set of techniques, such as close-quarter-strikes with the palm heel, elbow strikes, and strikes with our fingers, to name a few. When was the last time you practiced those with impact or in Randori?
When people come to Karate, they are only interested in the third form of Kumite. Very few are thinking about a career as a competitor. And even fewer will find it appealing to become an expert in Gohon Ippon Kumite.
Impact Training and Ikken Hissatsu in Shotokan Karate
Speaking of impact training, I’m very happy to see that regular training with Makiwara and pads is becoming common in practice once again in many Dojos. But there is more to Karate than just punches. Shotokan Karate gives us a variety of different techniques. For instance: Shoto Uchi. But a technique like this requires forging and strengthening by hitting the makiwara and pads.
Most experts agree that those who strike first in a real-life encounter have a higher chance of walking away as winners. If we accept this (and there will always be exceptions), then we need to take this into consideration for our Kumite practice. Fortunately, we already have the relevant guiding principle at hand in Shotokan Karate: Ikken Hissatsu – one strike, certain kill.
What is Ikken Hissatsu? The Foundation of a Fighting art
The idea behind this principle (which derives from the art of Japanese sword fighting and was adjusted to Karate by changing the character from “sword” to “fist” without changing the pronunciation) is that we need decisive action to be successful. That means attacking fast and furiously, surprising an attacker by attacking first and powerfully, and by putting all of our physical and mental strength into one attack. Of course, we cannot be sure that we finish off an opponent with one strike. But that is our ideal and guiding principle when establishing a Kumite program. Only then, Karate becomes again a fighting art.
All that has to happen in front of an uncertain situation. The German military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his book “On War” that war (or a fight in general) is a field of uncertainty. Things always change and we must prepare to adjust to these ever changing situations. This is also something we need to include in our Karate curriculum.
Fighting Spirit in Shotokan Karate
The most important aspect in a fighting situation is our fighting spirit, i.e. our mental fortitude. All experts and instructors agree on that. But is fostering up a fighting spirit really part of our Karate practice? Do we purposely create programs to build-up something as essential as fighting spirit? Do our students possess the self-confidence required in a real-world encounter? Are they able to deal with a situation in which their heart-beat rises to 180 or above? Are they able to handle the stress of the situation, while keeping their ability to act?
Self-confidence is just that: being able to act when under stress. It grows out of the assurance that you have gone through adequate training and figured out for ourselves how to handle a challenge or an opponent. Self-confidence emerges through realty-based scenarios practiced in Karate classes and a step-by-step program in learning how to deal with a threat. As closer a training resembles reality, as more likely we will succeed in building self-confidence and ultimately our fighting spirit. We fight the way we practice! So, as instructors we need to analyze the situation we have been training for and create a progressive Kumite program.
Not a Fighting Art: Gohon and Kihon Ippon Kumite
Karate classes and self-defense classes are two different things. That does not mean, however, that our Kumite practice should be totally removed from the reality of a fight. Why do we stick to Kumite drills that not only have nothing to do with reality, but form habits that put us in danger? For instance, stepping backwards, freezing after one step, maintaining the same distance, sticking to techniques we would not apply in a real fight, practicing always in the same, prearranged way. The idea that Kumite drills like Gohon Kumite or Kihon Ippon Kumite will eventually lead us to develop real fighting skills collides with reality.
How many advanced Karateka do you know that are proficient in those drills, but unable to deal with an opponent in real fights or even in free sparring? That even black belts are forced to go through these drills, just proves a serious loss of reality in parts of the Karate community. The areas in our brains, which become triggered by those basic drills versus those required for real fighting skills, occupy different places. It is not possible to transfer one set of skills, where drills have no connection to reality, to another that is reality based. That is impossible.
Efficiency is a sign of quality for a Karate teacher. Teaching drills that do not lead us to the results needed is inefficient. So, we need to get rid of certain drills and focus on those that get us further towards our main goal in Karate as a fighting art: being able to fight under real conditions.
Randori got Eliminated from Training
When I started with Shotokan Karate in the 1970s, Karate classes were still rather simple in structure. No matter what Dojo I practiced with or what seminar I visited, Randori was always part of the class. We did usually for the first thirty minutes of the class. Then in the mid-1980s, things became more sophisticated. Karate Teachers eliminated Randori from most practice sessions. Why? Because they deemed it as too raw, primitive, and unsophisticated (and of course some instructors were concerned about losing students). They looked for more refined ways. For short-cuts, maybe? As it turned out, there are no short-cuts when it comes to build up real-world fighting skills. It is still based on blood, pain, and sweat and necessary for a fighting art.
While it is important for a martial artist to develop further and to seek for ways to get better and stronger. We should not forget the nature of combat and the core of a martial art. “Karate derives from the battle fields of Japan” said my late Karate teacher, Horst Handel. The core of Shotokan Karate Kumite is to finish an opponent, an opponent who wants to hurt you, in a situation, where you have very little control over. Everything we do in our Kumite practice needs to be based on these requirements.
The Necessity of Randori for Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art
Randori used to be a big part of our karate tradition. I recommend that we reconsider it as a main tool for Karate classes and to strengthen our fighting skills. Karate practice and self-defense classes are not the same. But with Randori we possess one training tool to strengthen our fighting skills and work on certain virtues as fighters: toughness, resilience, reflexes, adaptability, for instance.
There are different levels and ways to conduct Randori. But think about the requirements of real-world encounters and you will find ways of making Randori a meaningful tool for Kumite practice. Add the close-quarter distance and do not limit yourself to competition rules. Consider a variety of techniques (different strikes, low kicks), practice with responsible contact to the body. Practice without protective gear, and use the principle of Ikken Hissatsu in Randori. It is a proven mean to make Shotokan Karate a fighting art again.