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Karate Do: The Path to oneself?!

The picture shows a practitioner of Karate Do at the beach during sunset.

Karate Do is a path to oneself” argues TD McKinnon in his latest column Shotokan Essence. However, most of the people who start this path do not seek to arrive at themselves. Other motives are more relevant for them. That is explains a high number of dropouts. The ones who stay on the path are the ones who are encouraged to follow the Dojo Kun. Thus, karateka should focus on developing and cultivating the Dojo Kun.

Karate Do is a way of training, thinking, conducting oneself; a way of believing in oneself, for life. In other words, Karate Do is a life-long journey of self. The motivating factors for beginning this journey can be many and varied: self-defence, fitness, confidence building, and sporting competition, to name but a few. However, goals change. Your martial path, should you chose to take it, will have many twists and turns along the way, some of them 180°.

One person in 10,000 

After a lifetime of teaching, I do know that if you were to ask every wide-eyed beginner on their first day of training, “Why are you beginning karate training?” their motivations would be many and varied.

However, of 10,000 beginner only 50 percent will still train after the first six months. After one year, only 1,000 will be left. Maybe 100 will reach the third year. Maybe less that than 0.1 percent will earn their shodan. But an even smaller amount will go on to receive their Nidan.

What are the Reasons for the high number of Dropouts?

From all those individuals who begin training, there are those who will find out quickly that it is not what they imagined, and not for them. Some won’t make it past the second week. 

Some will learn a few techniques, maybe even take a couple of gradings, and then life will get in the way. And they will drift away. They may even promise themselves that they will be back. Very few return. 

There will be the achievers: those who will persevere until they achieve that coveted black belt, before moving on to their next achievement. 

There will be the sports people, who excel in the sporting arena. They may even have a relatively long career in sport karate. After their own competition days have run the course they might continue as judges, referees and sporting competition coaches. They are the perpetual sports people. To them, the sport is Karate. 

Then there are the shining few, who may indeed pass through some or all of the aforementioned phases, but who will then don the mantle and tread the cloistered path of Karate Do

How Long does the Path of Karate Do take? 

  • If you are seeking only physical benefits the chances are that, after your physical body peaks, you will lose interest. 
  • If it is a status symbol, the time it takes to get to black belt will probably be your maximum. 
  • If it is about self-defence or confidence building and it doesn’t go beyond that, it may be a short term or a long term thing, depending on your situation and life style choices. But eventually it will wane. 
  • If it is mainly the sport aspect that attracts and holds you, then after peaking in the sport, it will fare much the same as any sport. The young will enjoy the competition, and as they mature they may continue in an official role: sporting coach/referee/judge et cetera. However, not unlike any sporting involvement, it diminishes and eventually disappears. 
  • If you find Karate Do to have an honorable code of ethics, worth aspiring to, and Karate Do weaves itself into your very fabric, you may find that Karate-Do is your path, for life. 

Karate Do Encourages an Ancient Instinct: Honour

Honour, as a noun, meaning respectability and virtue, or a code of conduct valuing those concepts, is an ancient human instinct. Karate Do seeks to encourage and develop that instinct. The Dojo Kun, a set of philosophical rules for the smooth running and necessary control of the dojo environment, is a guiding light to illuminate the way. 

Remember, whatever their underlying motives: this is a group of people who are there to learn how to inflict physical violence on an adversary. When you think about it, that environment could run quite quickly out of control: becoming unruly, aggressive, and possibly quite violent. In my time I have actually witnessed fight training centers, a karate dojo or two, even one Shotokan dojo, where, to one degree or another, this was in evidence. 

The Dojo Kun: Its Origins and Implications 

The Dojo Kun is set in place to modify behavior, both inside and outside of the Dojo. Most traditional Dojos recite a Dojo Kun, or a modified version of that Kun, at least once every training session. Stating the moral code of the Kun before beginning a class can be said to ready the mind and spirit for learning and practicing implied violence, non-violently. Whereas reciting the Kun on completion of one’s training is like the final, centering thought as you finish a meditation. Resetting the mind before re-joining ‘normal’ society. Some Dojos, emphasizing and promoting humility, recite the Kun at both the beginning and the end of a class. 

Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, 1868-1957, the founder of Shotokan, is generally credited with creating of the Dojo Kun. According to Funakoshi Sensei, The Dojo Kun contains the general, guiding principles of Karate. Funakoshi Sensei also set out the Niju Kun: twenty specific and subordinate principles of Karate, encompassing morality, technique, and proper mindset. 

Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way.
Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way.

Others credit Sakukawa Kanga Sensei, 1733-1815, with creating the Dojo Kun. I would venture that Sakukawa did instigate a Dojo Kun. That being said, however, I would also suggest that wherever the martial arts have been studied, seriously, a Kun (a set of philosophical guidelines) is likely to have been set in place. 

The Dojo Kun varies throughout the martial arts fraternities to suit cultural and philosophical differences. Even within Shotokan, now seeded throughout the world, the Dojo Kun has morphed. There remains however a similar, underlining message of humility and respect. 

Karate Do and the Meaning of the Dojo Kun

JKA Dojo Kun

The following is the JKA Shotokan Dojo Kun

  • 一、人格 完成に 努める こと hitotsu, jinkaku kansei ni tsutomeru koto
  • 一、誠の道を守ること hitotsu, makoto no michi wo mamoru koto
  • 一、努力の精神を養うこと hitotsu, doryoku no seishin wo yashinau koto
  • 一、礼儀を重んずること hitotsu, reigi wo omonzuru koto
  • 一、血気の勇を戒むること hitotsu, kekki no yū wo imashimuru koto 

In the West, particularly the UK, the following is a widely accepted translation of the essence of that Kun: 

  • Each person must strive for the completion and perfection of one’s character 
  • Each person must be faithful and protect the way of truth 
  • Each person must endeavor (fostering the spirit of effort) 
  • Each person must respect others and the rules of etiquette 
  • Each person must refrain from hot blooded behavior (guard against impetuous courage) 

Concise Dojo Kun

When I began my Shotokan journey in Scotland in the early 1970s, I recited a more simplified version: 

  • Seek Perfection of Character 
  • Be Sincere 
  • Put maximum effort into everything you do 
  • Respect Others 
  • Develop Self Control 

Since those early days I have heard several terser versions; the following is just one of them: 

  • Character 
  • Sincerity 
  • Effort 
  • Etiquette 
  • Self-Control 

Karate Do, Dojo Kun and the Path to one Self

The Dojo Kun appears in many styles and arts, varying according to the general precepts of the style. A book could be written on a veritable proliferation of Dojo Kun

Like the many paths ascending the mountain, striving to reach the summit; so too does any true study and practice of the martial disciplines strive to achieve enlightenment. Hence, practicing Karate Do and following the Dojo Kun means to be on a life long path to oneself.

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What can Karate teach us? By Shinji Akita

What Karate can teach us! Shinji Akita during a seminar in Malta

What can Karate teach us? Follow me on my quest through Japan to answer this question. By Shinji Akita

The Shotokan Times asked me this interesting question a few month ago. I wanted to pursue it further during my recent trip to Japan. When I addressed different Karate Sensei, they all gave me a very similar answer. They all indicated how much the values we learn in the Dojo also characterize Japanese society. In Japanese language we have a term for these values. They are called: Reigi.

The Foundation: Reigi

The term has a major significance in the various Japanese arts, at school, work, within the family, in public etc. Reigi means etiquette and courtesy and should be reflected in one´s behavior and actions. It is not only the respect towards others but also towards the Dojo, the environment and nature.

Reigi also characterizes the relationship between Senpai and Kohai – senior, older graduate and junior, less experienced. This concept exists in the Dojo as well as in school or between colleagues.

What can Karate teach us? Watch Akita Sensei on his incredible journey through Japan.

Shin-Gi-Tai: The “Mind of a Beginner”

Matsuda Hisashi Shihan, under which I started practicing Shotokan in my hometown Gifu, also mentioned the term Shin-Gi-Tai. The term describes the connection between mind and heart on the hand, and technique and body on the other hand. It is not easy to translate “Shin” with one word as it has a deep meaning for Japanese people. The mind or heart (“Shin”/“Kokoro”) amongst others stands for the attitude of a person. According to Matsuda Shihan, students must wish to learn something and get better. This “mind of a beginner” is the precondition for “Gi” (technique) and “Tai” (body). Good techniques and the benefits for the body will come naturally based on that kind of attitude.

Greetings, responses, and lining up quickly, for instance, reflect shin. These things appear simple. However, they are not that easy and need to be taught properly.

  • What Karate can teach us! Shinji Akita during a seminar in Malta
  • What Karate can teach us! Shinji Akita during a seminar in Malta
  • Shinji Akita in Malta

Karate: A Path to Self-discovery

I had the chance to interview Richard Heselton Sensei during the Summer Gasshuku of the Takudai Karate Club this year. I also asked him about what karate can teach us. He said that “Karate is a path of self-discovery, teaching us many different things.” This could also be modesty and acceptance, making one´s expectations and physical abilities match.

After all, nobody is perfect. There is always something we can learn and improve. This is what makes Karate so interesting. It is something one can do for life.

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“I realized that this is a perverted system”: Thomas Prediger about Sport Karate

The picture shows Thomas Prediger who says that Sport Karate is a "perverted system". He also sees a great potential for kumite in violence prevention.

Kumite Boot Camp is the regular column of Thomas Prediger in which he will discuss crucial topics for Shotokan Karate. This time, he spoke with Dr. Christian Tribowski about Karate Do vs. Sport Karate. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Christian: Hello Thomas, I am very glad that you found the time for the interview. We want to talk about Karate Do vs. Sports Karate today. But before we start, I would like to ask why this is an important topic? Why is it relevant for you and the Shotokan community in general?

Thomas: Hello Christian, yes, thank you for having me. The reason is that a division between traditional and sports-oriented Karateka has emerged in the last two decades. And I think that this division does not do justice to Shotokan Karate at all. Sports alone does not reflect the whole variety of Shotokan Karate. Instead, we should seek for a comprehensive education in Karate Do.

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Sport Karate vs. Karate Do

Christian: Before we dive deeper into your argument we should define, what you mean when you talk about Karate Do and Sport Karate. What is what?

Thomas: Karate Do as a martial art shall, in my opinion, comprise all aspects of personality development. This goes for training and competitions. Everything in Shotokan Karate Do should strive for the development of good personalities.

Sports, on the other hand, focuses mainly on competitions and success. It is about being faster, more powerful, or more agile. Sport revolves around competition. Development of character and personality does not play a big role in sports.

The Perfection of Character Is the Goal

Christian: So, the major goal for Sports Karate is winning competitions, right? And Karate Do is about striving to make one’s character perfect, like the Dojo-kun teaches.

Thomas: Yes! I know that it sounds exaggerated to “make one´s character perfect” and it is difficult to define what that actually means in practice. But yes, that´s it.

However, I do not mean to exclude competition from Karate Do. Competitions are a very important part of the education in Karate Do. We need them in order to train certain aspects of Karate Do. Everybody, who avoids competitions or tries to demonize them, does not practice the whole spectrum of Karate Do. Unfortunately, they leave very important educational experiences out.

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Emphasize of Sport Karate vs. Karate Do

Christian: I think we have to elaborate on that. If competitions are a part of Karate Do and we also have Sports Karate, which focuses on competitions, where exactly is the borderline between both? Why and how are they different?

Thomas: The exaggerated and overemphasized form of competition like it is practiced in Sports Karate stands in a stark contrast to Karate Do. If wining is the focal point and making points in a competition is the only thing that matters, then the most aspects of Do get pushed out and eliminated. Because athletes will do and are supposed to do everything to win. That leads, for instance, to doping and bending of rules.

To develop one´s personality, on the other hand, requires to stick to the rules and to deal with losses. When you only want to become the winner, you will hold yourself back from making important experiences as a human being. For instance, that you cannot always win.

“Athletes intentionally stepped into Zukis”

Christian: You were the coach of several top athletes. What situations have you experienced where athletes bend rules to win?

Thomas: The most unsettling situations were when athletes intentionally stepped into Zukis or Keris in order to win a fight. Because their opponents would have got a penalty and they would have declared the winner. That was the moment when I realized that this is a perverted system. One cannot and should not risk intentionally his or her health in order to win.

Focus on Competition Corrupts Morality

Christian: Does that mean that the overemphasized focus on competition corrupts morals and rationality?

Thomas: Yes, of course. If nothing counts except winning then I will focus everything towards this goal. My character also develops in this direction. If lying becomes strategically senseful to reach a goal, people will lie. For instance, fighters will claim that they were injured by their opponents, although nothing happened. I have experience all that during competitions. Eventually, that undermines the development of a good personality. Then a good personality means to be honest to others and yourself. If you get hit, you must indicate that and do not disavow like some fighters in the WKF do. One must learn to stand defeat – with a smile! That is a crucial part of the development of your personality. Because no personality is perfect. We all have shortcomings. But we have to accept them and work on them. If we only want to win, the development of our personalities becomes meaningless.

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Traditional Shotokan Karate: What is traditional about it?

By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Many masters, associations, and Karateka claim to practice traditional Shotokan. They usually do this in order to distinguish their Karate from what is called Sports Karate. A precise definition what traditional Shotokan Karate exactly means is mostly not give. The questioner is left in the dark about the “tradition” that makes Shotokan traditional most of the time. If one keeps asking what traditional Shotokan is many respondents have a tendency to use a rhetorical loophole. According to their opinion, traditional Shotokan is exactly all that, what Sports Karate is not. In other words: It is the exact opposite.

For some questioners such an answer might be sufficient because the have a vague understanding what distinguishes both types of Karate. Or they do not care much about the differences. They just want to practice.†

Definition of Traditional Shotokan?

For the community of practitioners and the art of Shotokan itself, however, a definition ex negativo is not sufficient at all. A clear understanding about the traits of Shotokan, a definition ex positivo, is necessary. Only then we will know how to

  • use and to work it out to its full potential,
  • spread its values,
  • create a common identity among practitioners,
  • attract new students,
  • show what is has to offer in comparison to other martial arts,
  • and to develop it further.

Unfortunately, the labels “tradition” and “traditional” do not help to illuminate and to  describe what Shotokan is about. Why is that? If we define the term tradition we see that almost everything can become a tradition. As the people in the Rhineland, which is the region where I life today, use to say: If you do something three times, it has become a tradition. A more precise definition can be found in dictionaries. According to Merriam Webster, a tradition is defined as:

“an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)”

Olympic Games: Sport as A Tradition

If we take this definition serious it has huge consequences whether we should call Shotokan “traditional”. Because sports can be and is already a “inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior”. For instance, the first ancient Olympic Games were conducted 800 before Christ. Back then, they were religious rituals with strict rules and ceremonial elements. According to the definition, they were traditions.

The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.
The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.

The same goes for the International Olympic Games of the modern age. They date back to 1896. With more than 100 years of history one has to conclude that they have become a worldwide social custom. Even modern Sports Karate is already a tradition. The roots of the World Karate Federation date back to the 1960´s. Thus, it is only 30 years younger than Shotokan itself. In 2020, the WKF will introduce Karate to the Olympic Games. Sports Karate will then become a part of a more than 2.800 year old tradition of organized sports competition.

Traditional Shotokan?

Shotokan Karate, on the other hand, was developed by Gichin Funakoshi in the 1920´s and 1930´s. And he did not develop it from scratch. He recombined Okinawa Karate styles and enriched them with some new ideas. But Karate itself is much older and has its roots in China. If we were consequent we must say that Okinawa Karate is more traditional than “traditional” Shotokan Karate. †

Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.
Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.

To label Shotokan as traditional does not hold water. Because we must also understand that the term tradition is not a good quality indicator. A tradition might be outdated, inefficient, and harmful. Thus, we cannot conclude that every tradition is always good. Sometimes it is better to leave a bad tradition behind and develop something new. From this point of view, it is neither logically meaningful nor practically useful to say Shotokan is a traditional art.

Karate Do is the Better Term

But what is the alternative? We have already a better term at hand. It is Karate Do. Because Karate Do means a way of life and a social philosophy. Principles guide Shotokan Karate Do.  The most famous among them is the Dojo-kun. But there are even more. For instance, the 20 Precepts of Karate by Gichin Funakoshi. The first precepts states:

“Karate begins and ends with courtesy.”

One can easily agree that this precept is timeless. It is neither traditional nor modern. It has been and will always be valid. This orientation on timeless values and guiding principles is the unique feature. At the center of the label of Shotokan should, therefore, stay that it is a paradigm to make the world a better place – it is Karate Do.

Note: I have to thank Michael Ehrenreich and Thomas Prediger for the inspiration to this article.