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Violence Prevention: More Fight in the Dojo, less Fight in the Street

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.

Violence prevention is a major part of Karate. The one who trains in Karate becomes less prone to be violent. The reason for this is that Karate comprises of two aspects other sports usually do not offer: The experience of controlled violence as an attacker and defender as well as the regulated setting for learning how to deal with violence. A good Karate education with regular Kumite makes children, adolescents, and adults less violent. Therefore, more fights in the Dojo means less fight in the streets. By Thomas Prediger

The Violence Prevention Paradox of Kumite

From a violence prevention standpoint this may sound odd: more fights in the Dojo leads to less fights in the street. But every experienced Karate teacher will make the same observation. Let’s say, for example, that an aggressive and violent adolescent joins a dojo. The young person has difficulties controlling his anger and gets into fights on a regular basis. But after some months or years the adolescent calms down, gets more control over himself, and starts reacting less emotionally and more rationally in stressful situations.

One school teacher reported to me recently: “We can clearly see which students attend the Karate group in our school, and which do not. The ones who train Karate twice a week have become calmer, even when they are provoked or bullied. Even when another student hits them they maintain their cool and do not let the situation slip out of their hands. One year ago, they would go ballistic.”

No child, teenager, or adult from an unstable and challenging background with many years of experiencing violence will become Gandhi over night. But Kumite helps them to understand themselves and violence in all its facets. Eventually, they learn life-skills “that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life” (WHO 2012: 29) and which aggressive and violent people lack most of the time.

Kumite: Violence in a Structured Environment

What is the concept of violence in Karate and Kumite? At first, one experiences violence through physical pressure and contact. When two Karateka face each other even in the simplest form of Kumite like Gohan Kumite, the Uke (defender) has to defend his or her position. Tori, the attacker, has to put pressure on Uke by attacking with speed and power. The more advanced the Karateka become, the higher the likelihood that an unblocked attack will cause pain and injuries.

However, Kumite takes place in a very structured environment, unlike a street fight. Adherence to rules prevent the Kumite from becoming a brawl. They are structured in a way to evoke certain actions.

Kumite as Role Play

Gohon, Sanbon, Kihon Ippon, and Jiyu Ippon Kumite are all settings for role play. One plays the role of Uke, while another plays the role of Tori. Both roles are equally important. One has to execute violence in order to understand what happens when one does it. Especially in Kihon and Jiyu Ippon Kumite one also has the role to take and to cope with violence inflicted on oneself. In such a situation one cannot act based on raw instincts. First, Uke has to analyze and understand the situation. Second, Uke has to react within a prescribed set of techniques.

This role play offers an interesting insight: The Karateka cannot avoid the situation. Thus, he or she has to deal with it. Through this pattern, Karateka learn to deal and experience both roles: Being an attacker and being a defender.

The outcome is twofold: They see what happens when they apply violence, and they experience what happens inside them when they become a recipient of violence.

Introspection and Self-reflection

To master this inner state of uncertainty, any Karateka will need Kihon training. During Kihon, which requires introspection and self-reflection, they become aware of their own physical and mental processes.

But the prerequisite for the deeper understanding of violence is physical contact. Tori must step into the physical comfort zone of Uke. One must learn to deal with the intruder, and not become stressed by the opponents behavior. Especially at the beginning, Gohon Kumite requires courage. One must stand and wait until Tori attacks. Uke is not allowed to retreat or flee. So, Tori sets the pace. Thus, Uke must control his or her impulses and reactions. Maybe the intuitive reaction would be to run away or to attack. Both are prohibited.

The highest form of the role play is Randori like Jiyu Kumite. It increases the complexity and degrees of freedom for both Karateka. It is a double-role setting where both Karateka are Uke and Tori at the same time. Depending on the rules, dangerous punches and kicks are allowed. Hence, Randori requires experience and skill to manage one’s emotions and impulses to be successful. It is not a brawl. The winner will be the Karateka who manages the unpredictability of the fight, not the most aggressive one. Literally translated, Randori means “chaos taking.”

During training the Karateka will become acquainted with different violence situations. The exposure to violence in a controlled setting trains their understanding of violence.

The Role of the Instructor in Kumite Training for Violence Prevention

What is the role of the insctructor during the process? Karate is rule-based, but not self-structured. Thus, the instructor has at least two functions:

  • First, the instructor must be trustworthy and a role model. Students will follow when they believe that the instructor has experienced what he or she teaches.
  • Second, the instructor must recognize when situations become too intense. Then, the instructor has to intervene immediately. That does not mean that the instructor stops the exercise. Rather, it means to redirect the rising tension. The instructor has to create situations that push the students out of their comfort zone so that they experience some stress. That requires some experience and education on the part of the instructor.

A good Karate instructor is, therefore, somebody who knows situations of high emotional and cognitive uncertainty for Karate students. That counts even more for students with a history of violence as an aggressor and/or victim.

Kumite teaches Life-Skills, which lead to Violence Prevention

What actually happens to a Karateka during Karate and Kumite training that leads to violence prevention? They learn, improve, and strengthen their life skills. In its briefing about Violence Prevention from 2012 the World Health Organization ranks life skills as one of seven major factors for the reduction of violence. But what does the phrase “life skills” mean? According to the WHO they mean:

“abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” (p. 29)

The list of life skills that prevent violence:

  • Self-Awareness: self-esteem and confidence building, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, goal setting, etc;
  • Self-Management: anger and stress management, time management, coping skills, controlling impulses, relaxation, etc;
  • Social Awareness: empathy, active listening, recognizing and appreciating individual and group differences, etc;
  • Relationships: negotiation, conflict management, resisting peer pressure, networking, motivation, etc; and
  • Responsible Decision-Making: Information gathering, critical thinking, and evaluating consequences of actions

Karate is one piece of a larger puzzle. All these life skills become habits during Karate and especially Kumite training. But it further depends on the social environment where a student is embedded, relationships to parents and caregivers, etc. But through Karate’s focus on etiquette and ethics, as stipulated in the Dojo kun and Niju kun, regular training can have a specific effect on violence prevention. Karate has the potential to create a value system for students in how to behave and abstain in violent situations.

Children and Adults Learn to Cope with Violence

Karate training has a high education value for children. They are a tabula rasa and must learn to judge their own feelings. The concept of violence is abstract for them. They know that violence in any form is uncomfortable.

But it also holds a high value for adults and violence. For Adults, who have had already experienced violence as a victor or aggressor, can also gain a more productive relationship to it. Most of the time they are blocked to talk and reflect about it because societal rules declare violence to be a taboo. This attitude leads to a counterproductive effect: It creates enormous inner tension that can lead to more physical violence. However, this tension has to leave the body and mind. Karate offers a relief and teaches the life skills to cope with it. Hence it has a huge effect on violence prevention.

Conclusion: Kumite and Violence Prevention

Violence stems from, among other factors, a lack of life skills. Karate teaches these life skills, and does so in a structured and controlled violent setting. Karateka learn through their education to deal with violence, to feel empathy, to understand the consequences, to control their fears and aggression, and to resist pressure.

In Kumite they develop these skills in actual violent situations in order to control and tame the violence. They training of Kumite mitigates violence instead of increasing it. Therefore, Karate has a huge potential for violence prevention and is a active means to help individuals to “deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” Hence, the paradox of more fights in the Dojo leads to less fights in the street dissolves. Violence prevention does not mean eradicating it, but rather, civilizing and developing an educated relationship to it.

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Karate and Fascia: A Fascinating Approach about Kime

Recently, scientist explored and proved the immense importance of the body’s fascia network for fitness and health of athletes. A well-trained and well-integrated fascial network optimizes both maximum performance and coordination. By including fascial consciousness in the Karate training it lifts performance limits. Fascial preloading and Catapult-like discharge allow extremely fast and effortless movements. The fascial system is loaded and discharged to the point of the highest tension, the kime. By Punito Michael Aisenpreis

The Fascinating Organ

Fascia (lat. fascia  for “band”, “bandage”) refers to the soft tissue components of the connective tissue that penetrates the whole body as an enveloping and connecting tensional network. These include all collagen fibrous connective tissues, in particular

  • joint- and organ capsules,
  • tendon plates,
  • muscle septa,
  • ligaments,
  • tendons, as well as the
  • “actual” fascia in the form of “muscle skins” that enwrap the whole body stocking-like.

Numerous manual therapeutic procedures aim to trigger a lasting change in fascia. These include, for instance, the connective tissue massage, osteopathy, Rolfing, or Myofascial Release.

The picture shows the fascia system within a muscle.
Figure Above: Septa: courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip

A Brief History of Fascia Research

Karate originated about 130 years ago in Okinawa with Chinese influence in secret from the “Tode” (Itosu, Asato). Gichin Funakoshi refined it in Japan from the 1920s. Around the same time, osteopathy emerged in the United States. Andrew Taylor developed the manual healing art in the “wild west”, where there was no medical care. In osteopathy, the importance of fascia as the all-connecting and nourishing tissue was emphasized from the beginning of the art.

Western medicine, on the other hand, perceived fascia mostly as mere packaging organs and ignored its meaning. In practical anatomy, medical students around the world learned to prepare away the enveloping fascia as comprehensively as possible, so that “you could see something”. However, German medical Prof. Dr. Alfred Pischinger discovered in the 1970s the immune and protective functions that take place in the fascial connective tissue, as a system of basic regulation.

The picture shows fascia of the back: Fascia thoraco-lumbalis Septa: courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip.
Fascia of the back: Fascia thoraco-lumbalis Septa – courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip

Fascia: The Internet of the Body

Fascia works like an internet within the body. Due to its features we are able to perceive and control our bodies. Research on myofascial power transmission made a significant contribution to the new understanding of fascia. Most muscles transfer a considerable part of their traction force not directly to the associated tendons, but to parallel neighboring muscles.

This is mainly done via cross-connections between adjacent muscle shells. That neighboring muscles are coworker, supporter or enabler muscles is not surprising. However, as we have now found out, this also happens between functional antagonistic muscles. Even in a healthy human being, muscles influencing membranous fascial tensions instead of directly acting on the skeleton, so like ropes that span a sail.

The picture shows a microscopic fascia structure. Courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip
Microscopic fascia structure. Courtesy Dr. Robert Schleip

Kime: the Art of Controlled Locking

The Karate of the old master shows movements that explode without effort or intent. In Karate, Kime refers transmitted energy at the moment of greatest tension during a stroke or kick. Practitioners should carry out movements quickly and relaxed. At the moment of the meeting of the technique the body discharges the energy.

Kime is an essential part of karate. Viewed from the outside, Kime appears as a sudden controlled locking (“snapping”) of the technique-carrying arm or leg a few centimeters (Sun-dome) in front of the target, or in an emergency exactly at the target. Mastery of the Kime allows both fast, and at the same time powerful techniques. I addition, it protects the fighter from getting tired due to permanent muscle tension. This explosion and snapping uses the charged and preloaded fascial system.

The picture shows hikite: Drawing back the hand preloads the fascia: Photo Punito M. Aisenpreis
Hikite: Drawing back the hand preloads the fascia: Photo Punito M. Aisenpreis

Kime is not a Muscle Cramp: Pre-loading versus Tightening

Karate beginners sometimes misunderstand Kime as pure muscular tension. This makes their techniques slow and this costs a lot of energy. In the long run, this permanent muscle tension makes the muscles hard and short, the fascia matted and immobile and destroys the joints, often hips or knees. When a Japanese Sensei says “tightening,” he probably means “pre-loading” and then letting go. At the end of the explosive movement, the fascial tension of one movement locks the arm or leg and thus builds up new fascial tension for the next movement. Thus, a catapult-like motion dynamic is created. This acts much faster and from the center of the body than would be possible with pure muscle contraction.

The picture shows an illustration: By Onno - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/idex.php?curid=4738182
Illustration: By Onno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/idex.php?curid=4738182

The Double-Directed Bow: Pre-charging, Letting go, Pre-charging!

At the end of every movement the catapult charges itself (Kime) for the next catapult movement. The follow-up technique receives the energy from the Kime of the previous technique. It behaves like a pre-charged bow, which preloads after the release of an arrow. Then it loads up again and shots the next arrow. This pre-loading does not take place primarily in the muscles, but in the fascia. Thus, even small and less muscular athletes can perform lightning-like and strong techniques if they rely on the advantages of their fascia system. (see, for example: Sensei Andre Bertel and Sensei Naka Tatsuya).

The picture shows a double bow. The mechanics behind the fascia pre-loading can be understood like a double-bow.
The mechanics behind the fascia pre-loading can be understood like a double-bow. Source: Wikipedia

Fascial trains, breathing, and Kime: “San ten riki ho”

A strong Gyaku-zuki executed on the heel, and the internal tension of the adductor fascia in Zenkutsu dachi gives us a stable position. This becomes obvious when we look at Karate stances and techniques from a fascial system point of view. Consider the compression of the fascial chains from foot to hip together with a hip rotation and the discharge of these compressed joints along the fascial trains with weight shifting in the direction of the technique.

Breathing in the lower abdomen allows us to stimulate the vegetative nervous system by compressing the fascia of the trunk and thus “collecting Ki”. The trunk fascia transfers this through hip rotation into the shoulder, elbow and fist.

The picture shows the myofascial trains. Courtesy of Tom Myers.
Myofascial Trains courtesy of Tom Myers

When the stance is combined with fascia compression on the ankle, hip rotation, and power transfers along the fascia trains with Kokyu (breathing power) and weight shifting, a powerful technique is effortlessly created that explodes with Kime. So we have “San” (three) “ten” (places) of “riki” (power) transferred through the fascial system. Good examples of the pre-loading of the fascia before the explosive unloading are also the Hikite (drawing back hand to hip) and the Hikiashi (drawing back of the foot).

Fascia Injury and Fascial Damage

Most overload damage in the sports sector does not affect the red muscle flesh, but the white-colored collagen fiber network of the body, what we call fascial tissue. We also know today that this network is one of our most important sensory organs. It is the basis of our coordinate body perception. In addition, fascia can bond, matte, scar and lose its spring force and mobility. The fascia network can also change to the detriment of a wrong diet, permanent stress and permanent physical tension. It can become rigid and immobile, and become a source of pain, burden and dysfunction.

The picture shows a fascia of a 6-year-old (left) and a 90-year-old (right)
Fascia of a 6-year-old (left) and a 90-year-old (right)

Fascia Training and Therapy

A well-trained and integrated fascia network optimizes both maximum performance and the coordination of detailed movements. There are many receptors in the fascia that give information about how the body behaves in motion. Thus, it is not the skin that is our largest sensory organ, but the fascia. A well-trained connective tissue is elastic and stretchy, at the same time tear-resistant and strong and forms the basis for vital strength and physical performance. These are important resources for a long-term healthy Karate training.

The picture shows a 3D digital render of a human figure with muscle maps in a shuto-uke martial arts position isolated on white background. Muscles and tendons with the fascia lata of the thigh: Photo: iStock.
3D digital render of a human figure with muscle maps in a shuto-uke martial arts position isolated on white background

Make Fascia Fit Again

The fascial system is highly innervated and can be acting as a pain generator. This is one of the most important new findings in fascia research. Micro-cracks in the back fascia often seem to act as pain generators. As new studies have shown, the intervertebral disc often has nothing to do with the cause of pain. To wear off of the intervertebral disc is a natural process like graying of the hair. But it does not automatically cause pain   – even with a clearly visible herniated disc.

From now on, we can and must argue body and exercise therapists in a completely different way in terms of training and stress. Some traditional back school methods, for example, have spared the fascia in everyday life, instead of strengthening their elasticity and tear resistance through a well-dosed training.

The result may come suddenly: If you make an unjointed movement with a crooked back, the fascia is not trained and tears. Research has shown that that backfascia play an crucial role in cases of acute back pain. Therefore, it is sometimes essential to consult a specialists on this fascia. Targeted fascia therapy solves adhesion and bonding. The fascial layers can slide again on top of each other and regain mobility and flexibility. This therapy frees the patient from acute and chronic pain. It increases mobility and well-being in the body. This often leads to a feeling of vitality, joy and lightness, and to effortless and lightning-fast Karate techniques.

Fascia-friendly Diet

At birth, our body and connective tissue consist of almost 75% water. This liquid content decreases to about 55% with age. Sufficient fluid supply is essential for a functioning fascia system. However, it should not be an alcoholic or sugary drink, but water with possibly some electrolytes. Alcohol causes the fascia system to swell and mattify. Too little water forces it it to dry out. The “few beers” after the workout are poison for our fascia system. Acidified and greased fascia is the location for many metabolic toxins that our bodies can no longer dispose. Long-chain fiber-rich carbohydrates such as quinoa, millet or natural rice provide our fascia with a continuous source of energy.

The picture shows sensei Tatsuya Naka in action (on the right).
Sensei Tatsuya Naka in action (on the right).

Collagen and elastin, the components of the fascia, are made of proteins, so it is important to supply the body with these substances sufficiently to renew the fascia system. “Light” proteins such as soy products, chicken or fish are recommended. Unsaturated fatty acids (omega3) are just as important for our fascia system, which we can source from olive oil, linseed oil or fish.

Important vitamins for connective tissue are vitamin C, D, K and all B vitamins. Calcium, the micronutrients magnesium, potassium and sodium must be well balanced to keep our fascia system in good shape. Some other trace elements such as selenium, zinc, molybdenum and manganese. We can eat all these substances with a natural and unrefined diet using mainly vegetables and fruit.

Kihon, Kata, Kumite – Practice Karate in the fascia!

Each training component of the fascia training in Karate focuses on one of the outstanding properties of the collagen network with the aim of increasing the resilience (spring force) of the connective tissue. In this sense, each Karate training should contain the following fascia components:

  1. Spring action. Catapult Training (elastic spring): spring action movements for strengthening the tissue flexibility. Rotational movements of the torso as well as opening and closing of the shoulder belt with chest and back tension can increase the ability to catapult-like movements. In addition, the warm-up can contain springy movements. Roller backwards, forwards and fall exercises also improve spring force.
  2. Stretching. Agility Training (Fascial Stretching): Stretching exercises to increase flexibility. At the end of training with a warmed-up body improves mobility. Individual segments with shoulder belts or hips as well as the whole body can be stretched alone or as a partner exercise.
  3. Invigorating. Myofascial Release (Fascial Release): techniques for dissolving, rehydration and regeneration, metabolic training. This is where targeted nutrition, fascia roll and partner treatment come into play.
  4. Refining. Sensory Refinement: promoting the quality of movement and body feeling. Pause during a movement, isolation of a body side, performing kata “Ura” and practice with closed eyes are effective here. Balance exercises on one leg, partner strength tests and the often so underrated meditation before and after the workout refine our perception.
The picture shows the master of fascial snap and fascial elasticity: Sensei Andre Bertel (left
Master of fascial snap and fascial elasticity: Sensei Andre Bertel (left)

Fascia Consciousness: The Solar Sails of the Soul

In regard to extended perception skills the fascia forms a system from toes to head of an elastic fiber network. This network can be experienced for example in meditation and slow motion Karate practice as a kind of elastic dome tent structure within. When this structure is functioning properly, the sense of free flowing energy is experienced: Ki is flowing through the body from toes to head and vice versa. Then in Karate, empty hand and empty mind are filled with universal energy. Deep fulfillment is happening in that very moment beyond the wining of competitions, championships and trophies! The solar sails of the soul are charged with energy, when fascia is working properly.


“Tradition does not mean worshiping the ashes, but passing on the fire”. Gustav Mahler

Author: Punito Michael Aisenpreis, Coach, Therapist and Trainer in Munich and Murnau, Martial Arts and Meditation Teacher. Shotokan Karate since 1975, currently 4. Dan JKA and DJKB Trainer. Ki Aikido with Koichi Tohei, 3 years living in an Ashram in India. Regular Karate training in Japan with Andre Bertel and the JKA. Fascia therapy since 1981. Founding of the German Society for Myofascial Release e.V. in 1994.

The picture shows Punito Michael Aisenpreis.
Punito Michael Aisenpreis

Bodhidharma Karate Dojo Murnau, teaches Karate and fascia seminars.

Literature with the author. E-Mail aisenpreis@somatic.de; www.bodhidharma.de

This article was first published in Germany in the DJKB magazine.

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Missing Links of Karate: Why We Need Traditional Martial Arts

The missing links of Karate have become a research field for a community of innovative and open minded Karateka. We link Karate back to its roots in traditional martial arts from Asia. By doing so we focus on improving Karate and bring back what the art has lost through the development of modern Shotokan and Sports Karate. Therefore, missing links challenges conventional Karate wisdom and changes perceptions. By Heero Miketta

Questioning Shotokan

Practicing Japanese Karate will always bring up the question: “Which style?” – at least from those in the know. Three decades ago an answer by Hirokazu Kanazawa made the rounds in my Shotokan circles. “Martial arts,” the old master mumbled in reply, and was not willing to discuss this any further.

It impressed me at the time, because back then I had a moment of confusion myself. I had joined the instructor team of the police in the then German capital Bonn. It was a fortunate event to be welcomed in this rather elitist circle of good fighters with all kinds of martial arts backgrounds. I was a complete rookie, while all of them had tested their knowledge in more or less realistic scenarios.

My Shotokan fell short. What I had learned was too static, too focused on the long distance, and very much tuned into the rules of competition.

Shotokan Did not Meet the Reality of Fighting nor Philosophical Depth of Asia

Not an unusual story – I have met plenty of others with similar experiences, not only from Shotokan Karate. If you listen to Geoff Thompson, British author and martial artist, he describes the same learning journey. Self defense, realistic conflict, and violence prevention always question what we have learned in the dojo.

This was not the first time I second-guessed my Karate. When I started my training in Shotokan, coming from Judo and Tai Chi, I became disappointed at first. I found a sports system featuring tournament rules instead of the deep secrets I had expected. It was all sweat, mostly on my own, walking up and down a gym, hitting thin air. No Far East philosophy, nothing of the cool mystic background I imagined.

The Two Missing Links

Two missing links gave our research community its name: The actual combat content, and the deep knowledge, the Asian ways of thinking that challenge the Western mind.

The Bleeding Edge of Modern Society

This brings us straight to the core of martial arts: The connection of body and mind. What sounds like an advertising soundbite to the ears of experienced Karateka is a bleeding edge of modern society. In our book Missing Links of Martial Arts, we chose the term “debodification” to describe what is happening to humans today: An increasingly sedentary lifestyle dominated by screentime and virtual experiences. Fitness and wellness have the character of mere duties that have to be fulfilled. Looking good, being healthy, showing positive attitude is a mere part of a “personality package,” not a source of learning and personal growth.

This betrays modern people of genuine experiences that can only be made using the body. Some people aim to fill this gap in personal growth by attending Asian health systems like Yoga, Qi Gong, or meditation. Traditional martial arts offer the same philosophy in motion, and they bring even more to the table: Conflict, fear, stress, social skills, and communication.

The Depth of the Traditional Asian Styles

Modern fitness and self defense based systems offer much less depth. While mixed martial arts competition is a fantastic sport and often underrated by Karateka (also because of the testosterone-laden scenarios of competition in the octagon), it does not regard the deeper content of traditional martial arts. Do not underestimate MMA athletes, though. Many of them come from traditional systems and practice much more than what they need in tournaments. Grappling styles like Brazilian Jujitsu offer physical and mental training, as well as holistic knowledge. Nothing, however, beats the traditional Asian styles.

Shotokan Roots in China

The roots of our Karate go back to older arts from Okinawa and China, a fact that has not only been forgotten by many who think Karate is part of the traditional Japanese Budo curriculum. But it has been hidden by Japanese masters who went out of their way to rebrand Karate from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand,” simply by changing the Kanji of the name.

In our Missing Link Community, we use the original character: Ko Ryu Kara Te – old style Chinese hand. The look backwards to China and old Kung Fu styles is as important to us as the focus on modern application and usability. We avoid chitter chatter about “the street” and what is useful. We care about what we can learn for everyday scenarios that actually happen in modern life.

Chinese Martial Arts as Compendium for Modern Karate

What did we find in the Chinese arts?

Flow

First and foremost: Flow. Static stances, powerful hard movements – both can be more obstacle than help for good martial arts:

  • Nothing is static in a fight.
  • A stance is just a short moment in the context of a bigger event.
  • The entire movement is much more important than the end position of a step.
  • Low stances only make sense in the context of weight shift and power development; they have no value on their own.
  • Every technique, any combination, needs to work in a flow, and with a partner.

Nothing is more important than constant partner training. It is essential to develop mental flexibility and the ability to adapt to ever changing circumstances.

Structure

Another important issue is structure:

  • Posture,
  • stability,
  • full body movements and
  • the understanding of principles

This approach is superior to learning single techniques and executing them with maximum strength.

Movements make Perfect

Understanding – and feeling – the body and its movement makes for good martial arts. Discovering the capabilities of the own body and transferring it into work with a partner is surprisingly often neglected in Karate dojos, in favor of endless repetitions of techniques that make no sense without bunkai – the deep analysis of their meaning and usage. The external form of techniques, especially at the END of the movement, is getting much more attention than the application and the internal development of strength and power.

Traditional Martial Arts Connect Mind and Body

These holistic physical experiences create the connection of body and mind mentioned above. The body is the most important gate for emotional learning, and thus for the development of social skills, communication, conflict competence, coping with stress and fear, or in short: A life lived to the fullest.

No other physical training connects body and mind like the traditional martial arts do. The individual and their interaction with others is the main concern of our practice – and the challenges are physical as well as psychological and emotional.

The Missing Links between traditional Martial Arts and Shotokan
The Missing Links between traditional Martial Arts and Shotokan

What kind of martial arts do you practice?

So what is in a style? Why is the question, “What kind of martial arts do you practice” so important?

The Fallacy of Tribal Structures

The martial arts community as a whole has a very tribal structure. That arose surely from the way of teaching it in family structures in the past and then became a matter of national pride. Many Westerners are trying to be more authentic than their Asian teachers – so much that it borders cultural appropriation.

No Challenging of Opinions

Hierarchy and patriarchal structures in many associations are another issue. Not questioning the “master,” worshiping belt colors and double-digit dan degrees leads to an inability to challenge opinions, ask questions or be innovative.

Last but not least, styles give a level of security. To define what you are doing (and what you are not doing) gives control over your own training and a chance to measure your ability. “I have mastered this move, this kata, the rules of Shobu Ippon – I am a master now, my education is finished. I know where I am standing.” The comfort of narrow boundaries is enormous.

New Ideas Can be Challenging

We experience this in our dojos. Our ideas attract high ranked, experienced Karateka. But far too often they also put off these senior martial artists. “I have learned more in one of your lessons than in the last five years of training in my home dojo,” an experienced competition fighter told me. She was was talented, intelligent and fast. “I don’t like it,” she went on. “I will go back to my old dojo.”

Boom! Removing limits drops students into a void and leaves them confused. Our response is a sophisticated Kyu curriculum and a proper syllabus, giving beginners a scaffolding for their learning experience.

That is not the answer for advanced practitioners, though. Training with Missing Link is uncomfortable, challenging and needs engagement. That is what we face every day ourselves.

A Research Community For Karate

We see Missing Link as a research community. Yes, we build up new martial artists. But we also build up the knowledge of the community, and take on board the ideas and new impulses from experienced teachers joining us. Our ranking system is free of Dan degrees. The Okuden and Kaiden Master Levels that we use instead are not earned in a grading, but by delivering a thesis, a new idea, an own concept to the community.

A Diverse Community

This has brought an interesting mix of people to the Missing Link Community that started as a Shotokan-based venture. Soon members of our old ShoShin Projekt – a group of martial artists from different styles working together – joined the group. By now, our dojos in Germany, England, Denmark and Finland combine a colorful bunch of Karateka with a wide knowledge and the hunger to learn and discover more. The topics we care about grew beyond the narrow definitions of a style:

Missing Link offers a versatility curriculum and research.
Missing Link offers a versatility curriculum and research.

Innovative and Open Minded Tradition

What connects all teachers in Missing Link is the idea of a foundation curriculum, described in our book Missing Links of Martial Arts, and the general approach to teaching and learning, also detailed in the very same book. We feel that we have left the limits for personal development behind us in the past. But it also built a strong framework in which Karateka can feel at home if they don’t want to be restrained by an association that cares more for competition sport and purity of styles. Tradition, from our point of view, has to be innovative and open minded.

The Shotokan style is still a basis for many of our members. It has enormous values as a clean, straightforward gate into the complex world of martial arts. We call it the “Japanese garden of martial arts,” pretty and with intense focus. From this garden we want to head for the jungle, though.

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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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Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi Shot Movie for Olympics 2020 together

Rika Usami & Miki Nakamachi

Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi took part in the shooting of a film about karate for the Olympics 2020 in Tokyo last week. We talked with Miki Nakamachi about the shooting and her experiences on the set. Read our exclusive report. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi performing shoto uke on the film set for the "karate game instruction movie".
Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi performing shoto uke on the film set for the “karate game instruction movie”.

Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi Part of the Karate Introduction Movie for the Olympics

According to Miki Nakamachi, the movie introduces the discipline karate. On the one hand, it introduce karate to the media corporations and broadcasting stations, which will broadcast the discipline during the Olympic Games in Tokyo. On the other hand, the movie will introduce karate to a wider audience. Therefore, it will serve as an explanatory video for viewers who watch the discipline but have no relationship and knowledge about karate.

The team behind the “karate game instruction movie” found Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi via YouTube. After watching several kata videos, the crew decided to approach both karateka and to asked them to perform in the movie. Although neither of them will take part in the Olympics both agreed to the shooting. While Rika Usami ended her career as an active WKF competitor a few years ago, Miki Nakamachi still competes. However, she only starts at JKA tournaments, which has no affiliation with the WKF dominated Olympics 2020.

Here you can watch the full video.

The video by the JKF serves as an introduction for viewers of the Olympics who have no background in karate.

Support for Olympics in Tokyo in the First Place

For Miki Nakamachi her participation in the shooting of the movie was not an support of the discipline karate in the Olympics. On Instagram she stated that she supports that the Olympics Games in Tokyo, her hometown, in the first place.

Ken Nishimura and Ryutaro Araga took also part in the shooting of the film. They performed the kumite introduction because both are national team members of the Japan Karate Federation representing Japan in 2020. Both athletes are string candidates to win Olympic Gold in their weight classes.

Rika Usami, Miki Nakamachi, Ken Nishimura and Ryutaro Arago cheering for the Olympics 2020 in Tokyo.
Rika Usami, Miki Nakamachi, Ken Nishimura and Ryutaro Arago cheering for the Olympics 2020 in Tokyo.

Miki Nakamachi: “Rika Usami and I have a lot in common”

For Miki Nakamchi, however, the encounter with Rika Usami was the greatest pleasure. She wrote us: “It was such a great honor to meet Usami san. Even though she does not practice Shotokan, her kata are coined by very clean and strong techniques. Beside that: I have always loved her punches.”

Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi together on the film set.
Rika Usami and Miki Nakamachi together on the film set.

Both karateka have even more in common. Rika Usami is also a mother like Miki Nakamachi. And both share the same passion. Miki Nakamachi stated about this: “It is always great to get involved with different karatekas and different organizations. Because have so much in common and we realize eventually: we all love karate.”

Watch Rika Usami performing Kata in the finals of the 2012 WKF world championship. Her performance gained her the 1th place against Sandy Scordo of France.
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Karate and the Olympic Games: A Long Conflict is Over

The picture shows the Rings of the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Games have long been a dream and a field of conflict for many karateka. However, the decision of the french national Olympic committee to not include karate in 2024 is only the finally to a several decades long conflict which has come to an end now. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

According to an article by the BBC at the beginning of this year, the organizing committee of the Olympic Games 2024 in Paris will Karate not include Karate in the program. The article says:

“Karate will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games but has not been included on the shortlist of proposed sports for the Paris Games four years later.

Therefore, the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 will be the only occasion for Karatekas to fight for Gold.

Budo-oriented Karateka express relieve

For some this announcement came as a relive. The doubts about a participation among budo-oriented Karateka increased in the last few years. They feared that Karate would lose its ethical foundation. In addition, Sport Karate would turn a value-oriented endeavor to the perfection of ones character into a profane business. Above all, the “traditional” Karate community did not feel represented by the World Karate Federation.

Sport Karate Community Deeply Disappointed

Others, on the other hand, expressed deep disappointment. In addition, the decision by International Olympic Committee came as a surprise by the proponents of the participation of Karate in the Olympic Games. Some saw their dream been crushed.

The WKF president Antonio Espinos commented immediately on the announcement:

“Our sport has grown exponentially over the last years, and we still haven’t had the chance to prove our value as an Olympic sport since we will be making our debut as an Olympic discipline in Tokyo 2020”

Long and Conflict Laden History of Karate and the Olympic Games

Independent of which side one stance, the history of Karate and the Olympics dates back to the 1970. Even back then conflicts emerged, which organization has the right to represent Karate on the global and Olympic stage. In 1988, John K. Evans wrote an article in which he described this difficult relation. The Black Belt Magazine published the article. It can be found here: THE BATTLE FOR OLYMPIC KARATE RECOGNITION WUKO vs. IAKF. (The Shotokai-Encyclopedia provides the article. We highly recommend the encyclopedia because it is a very concise and enlightening compendium.)

Evans described in his article, how the different Karate Do organizations emerged and developed certain political interests. It becomes obvious that Karate in general but Shotokan in particular was from the beginning a field of conflicting positions and groups. Unfortunately, the article leaves out important historical parts like the emergence of the WUKO. In addition, the independence of Evans can be doubt. Because he served a high official for the WUKO back then. However, the article gives a first hint about the history of Karate Do and the Olympics. And it reveals that the dispute dates back much longer than the most think.

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Hikite: More than just the pulling hand

Addison and Eleanor with a strong focus on Hikite!

Hikite has been criticized in the last few years to be ineffective and actually solely for the purpose of pulling an opponent. I will show in this article its actually bio-mechanical purpose as a counter-motion for the creation of speed and power. By Thomas D. McKinnon

The Hikite Critics

I have heard many so called experts criticizing the hikite as a pointless exercise. It makes no sense, they say, that pulling one hand in the opposite direction, to the one that is punching, will generate power to the punching hand. They usually go on to say that the original purpose of hikite is easily seen in the older, Okinawan forms of karate. They operated at a closer range between the attacker and the defender. Karate was originally, purely for self-defense. It was used when attacked by an adversary, and not for sport, where two karateka are facing off.

So, in those experts’ opinion, the hikite – originally meant for destabilising the opponent, grabbing limbs, clothing or hair, to assist in a throw or takedown – is a waste of time unless used for those reasons. In fact the free hand would be put to better use as a cover, for the face say, while the opposite hand is punching et cetera.

A young Hirokazu Kanazawa demonstrates how a Choku Zuki with a string Hikite has to look like.
A young Hirokazu Kanazawa demonstrates how a Choku Zuki with a string Hikite has to look like.

What is Hikite about?

Hikite is another of those Japanese terms that means more than it says. Hikite: the pulling hand. Firstly, the hand that is the counter-piece of any given hand technique is not just pulled back per se. But we’ll get back to that. The difference between karate and let’s say boxing is simple. Karate doesn’t use a shoulder and or a lean in or a swing to generate power in the technique. Power generated in that manner makes the weight of the initiator a major part of that power generation. The (switched on) Shotokan karateka uses the rotation around the central pivot, or Hara (the core), of the body. Utilising the whole body, not just the side that is punching, the karateka is in fact employing more mass.

Furthermore, the slingshot effect generates more explosive speed. And, as everyone knows, this is instrumental in both power output and payload delivery: Force = Mass x Velocity (Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion). In the David and Goliath scenario: do you think that David would have slain Goliath if he’d simply thrown the stone?

Counter Pivot Around the Core for Maximum Speed and Power

I stated in that last paragraph that the hikite is not pulled back per se. Let me clarify. The hikite is used to counter pivot the energy from one side of the body to the other via the central pivotal core. Thus, pulling the opposite side of the body not back but, spiraling through the core adding more mass. Therefore it generates more speed and lends more power to the strike. This works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home. Force = Mass x Velocity. This action does not necessarily mean that the hikite hand ends up at the hip. However, when teaching this power transference, it is generally thought easier, initially at least, to demonstrate the action this way.

Thomas D. McKinnon (author): He puts a lot of emphasize on Hikite. It "works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home."
Thomas D. McKinnon (author): He puts a lot of emphasize on Hikite. It “works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home.”

I stated in that last paragraph that the hikite is not pulled back per se. Let me clarify. The hikite is used to counter pivot the energy from one side of the body to the other via the central pivotal core. Thus, pulling the opposite side of the body not back but, spiraling through the core adding more mass. Therefore it generates more speed and lends more power to the strike. This works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home. Force = Mass x Velocity. This action does not necessarily mean that the hikite hand ends up at the hip. However, when teaching this power transference, it is generally thought easier, initially at least, to demonstrate the action this way.

What The Experts get Wrong

I do not disagree in regard to those other uses for the hikite. However, in my humble opinion, those so called experts don’t see the whole concept. They totally miss or misunderstand, the other side of the equation. To talk about pulling and pushing is somewhat redundant. Pulling one hand back is not going to power up the pushing or punching side… that’s obvious. That is where most of the power generation naysayers get their nickers in a twist. At the risk of repeating myself: the hikite is not pulling back, it is pulling the opposite side of the body into the equation by powering it through the central pivot or center axis. This action enables the karateka to utilise the power of the entire body. And not just the side that is delivering the strike.

Hikite Creates Physical Force

There is an equation for this power generation. Centripetal force (defined as, “The component of force acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or axis of rotation”) is equal and opposite to the Centrifugal force. Centrifugal force (defined as, “The force, equal and opposite to the Centripetal force, drawing a rotating body away from the center of rotation, caused by the inertia of the body.”) then adds to the Mass and the Velocity already in motion. Again, we have a measurable: Force = Mass x Velocity.

Addison is 12 years of age, and the Tasmanian State Champion in both kata and kumite in her age category; plus, she is part of the National Australian Squad.  Eleanor is 17 years of age, the Tasmanian State Champion in kata and kumite in her age category, also runner-up in the Ladies Open, and she too is part of the Australian National Squad. Both focus a lot on Hikite!
Our Two young ladies of the opener picture: Addison is 12 years of age, and the Tasmanian State Champion in both kata and kumite in her age category; plus, she is part of the National Australian Squad.  Eleanor is 17 years of age, the Tasmanian State Champion in kata and kumite in her age category, also runner-up in the Ladies Open, and she too is part of the Australian National Squad. Both have a strong focus on Hikite!

All the other possible constituents of the hikite – destabilising the opponent, grabbing, pulling and assisting a throw or takedown et cetera – actually become even more relevant. Power generation, on its own, is a very real component of hikite. However, in addition, the supplementary power element makes all the other mechanisms of hikite even more practicable.

Hikite: more than just the pulling hand.

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Karate Do as a Martial Art: War or Peace?

Girl doing Oi-Zuki

Karate Do means for some being constant in a war. For others, however, it means peace. By Marco Sanna

The Origin of Karate Do as Martial Art

Back in the days, martial arts prepared warriors for hand-to-hand combat. Self-protection was paramount. In such a system was little room for art, spiritualism, moral, ethical formalism, and the pursuit of mental and physical perfection. Martial arts were perceived as “arts of war” that were based on the logic of “kill or be killed”.

Karate Do: A Martial Art?

Karate Do is also a martial art. But can we say it is an art of war? No. But that has not always been the case. Until the 1980´s, training focused on toughness. Masters during that time were less aesthetic, less athletic, less explosive than they are today. On the other hand, they were very strong and trained like that.

The stories about that period are numerous. My father (VII Dan, class ’53) told me:

“The training sessions in the 70´s were characterized by strong physical training. The conditioning of the body included an indefinite number of flexions on the arms and abdominal bending. Followed by hundreds of repetitions of basic techniques. I remember having performed the first kata with a training partner on my shoulders, I performed the positions and he the techniques of arms . When Master Hiroshi Shirai arrived on Sardinia, it was a great honor for us despite the hardness of the training and the inflexibility towards the smallest mistake”.

In the first years of Karate development in Europe, students were all adults. Being all big and strong they had no problems with hard training sessions like in Japan. Thus, the numbers of athletes grew very fast and reached 150.000 Karateka during the ’70s that.

The Change of Karate Do during the 1980´s

The euphoria of the early years, however, slowly faded away. The reason for the decrease was that Westerners understood Karate Do as a sport and a sort of workout. For the most Karateka rigors training sessions like in Japan were just too tough.

Marco Sanna During Karate Practice
Marco Sanna during Karate Practice

Plenty Karate masters realized that training routines had to change or their Dojos would be empty in the future. Karate had become more soften without losing its physical component. This urge to alter Keiko (jap. for “training”) was also fostered by the fact that children became more present in Dojos. Their physical features do not allow for tough training. Due to this causes Shotokan Karate Do has been losing its “art of war”-character.

Instead, of welcoming this development many Karateka complain that Shotokan has lost its soul. It should become tough again in order to foster the mindset of warriors. That would be the true spirit of Budo.

Shotokan as an Art of Peace

From my point of view, the true meaning of Shotokan Karate as Budo was never related to an “art of war”. Budo, like Gichin Funakoshi has taught us, has nothing to do with physical violence. He said:

 “The ultimate goal of Karate  is not winning or losing but perfecting the character who practices it”.

Gichin Funakoshi founded the style of Shotokan Karate Do
Gichin Funakoshi founded the style of Shotokan Karate Do

While Karate comprises striking and blocking these actions are embedded into a bigger system of

  • ceremonial rules,
  • ways of behavior,
  • sets of techniques and predefined movements (kata),
  • ethical programs,
  • moral convictions,
  • mindset,
  • attitudes, and
  • structures of relations.

One must learn all these aspects and repeat until they are perfect. Only then one becomes a true Karateka.

Control over Body and Mind lead to Peaceful Subjects

The purpose of this system is to gain control over one´s body and mind. Control is the prerequisite for happiness and a fulfilled life. When affects, impulses, and negative emotions dominate decision making, it becomes unpredictable whether one can reach happiness. It also leads to more selfless and call personalities that do not seek violence. Once one reaches control over his body and mind, tranquility, balance, and resilience emerge. Opponents can become friends then. Conflicts can become opportunities of mutual understanding. Jealousy changes into sympathy. In order to reach this state of mind performing Kata is more important than fighting an opponent.

In fact, by losing its tendency towards toughness, Karate Do became what it always was supposed to be: an art of peace.

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Shotokan Karate Philosophy – Diverse and Confusing

Shotokan karate philosophy can be confusing. While the art has a rich diversity of approaches and convictions this also leads to conflicting positions within the community. Where does this diversity come from? And how should we deal with it? An analysis by Dr. Christian Tribowski

Have you ever found yourself in a deep discussion about Shotokan Karate Philosophy? Have you ever felt torn apart between different aspects of Shotokan like bushido on the one hand and the claim to “refrain from hot blooded behavior” (Dojo kun) on the other? Has Shotokan confused you every now and then?

Shotokan Karate Philosophy: The Roots of its Diversity

If you have found yourself in such situations, do not worry. It is not because of you. It is because Shotokan is coined by conflicting claims, purposes, and notions. Since its foundation, several important personalities and groups have attached their ideas about good and right Shotokan to the art. The result is a patchwork of approaches, philosophical orientations, convictions, and practices.

The picture shows Gichin Funakoshi who was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do.
Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do.

For grand master Funakoshi, for instance, the civilizing and physical-educative aspects of Shotokan were more important than self-defense. His son Gigo, on the other hand, sought to develop Shotokan into an efficient fighting system. Masatoshi Nakayama, who was close to Gigo, brought sports and tournaments into the style. After Nakayama passed away, the differentiation accelerated, and an abundance of Shotokan Karate associations was found. While they all share commonalities, every grand master has left their mark on Shotokan and pushed it to a specific direction.

The Coordinate System of Shotokan Karate Philosophy

To make this confusing situation a little bit more understandable we can develop a simple scheme. This scheme emerges when we reduce the diversity to four distinguishable and ideal typical dimensions of Shotokan. These are:

  • Martial art and self-defense
  • Way of thinking and lifestyle
  • Civilizing means and social philosophy
  • Physical Education and sports
The picture shows Yoshitaka "Gigo" Funakoshi, who developed the style further.
Yoshitaka “Gigo” Funakoshi, who developed the style further

Every dimension can be understood as one pole of Shotokan. If these poles are placed in opposite directions, they create a coordinate system in which every approach, notion, and idea of and about Shotokan can be localized. Some Shotokan-Ka understand their Karate, in the first place, as a means to gain and maintain mental balance and tranquility. They are in between the “civilizing/way of thinking”-pole.

For others, self-defense and self-assertion is at the center of their Shotokan. They tend towards the “martial art and self-defense”-pole. Karateka with ambition to become successful competitors will tend towards the “physical education and sports”-pole. While all these groups belong to the field of Shotokan they have different locations within the field.

Quadrilemma of Shotokan Karate Philosophy
Quadrilemma of Shotokan Karate Philosophy

Good Diversity or Bad Confusing?

But is this situation of diversity good or bad? Is there not one specific “Do”? Is it better to have a unified approach and a coherent idea about Shotokan? Or is it better to welcome the diversity of notions and ways to practice Shotokan? Is it a pain or a blessing?

 Two answers to these questions exist. Both have different qualities and consequences.

  1. An orthodox approach, that understands the existence of different notions and approaches of Shotokan as a unsolvable and morally harmful quadrilemma;
  2. A heterodox approach, that values diversity as positive because a competition of ideas leads to new and better solutions.

The quadrilemma-approach judges the diversity as a painful situation. Ideal typically speaking: Shotokan can either be peaceful or a martial art. It can only be a sport or a superior way of life and thinking. Then, the desire to win over an opponent distorts humility and the perfection of character. Both cannot exist at the same time. The different poles will always undermine each other and stand in constant conflict. Thus, all other dimensions must be excluded in order to make one position logical coherent.

The picture shows Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA instructors. On hi left side: Hirokazu Kanazawa.
Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA instructors.

Shotokan Karate Philosophy is not Black and White

But is this a progressive and realistic solution? The quadrilemma-approach reduces the world to categories of black and white. Instead of solving the problem it retreats to one of the poles, usually to its favorite one. Reality, however, is mostly “grey”. Situations are seldom clear and human beings can be driven by several motives at the same time. One approach or dimension can also serve many purposes or have several effects.

Controlled fighting in a tournament, for instance, can be a very effective means to learn mental control and balance. To think about the civilizing aspects of Shotokan and how the martial arts could fit to them, can lead to the insight that fighting is sometimes necessary to protect other human beings and to maintain the public order. To learn how to fight can be justified through this higher purpose. In this specific case, fighting is not excluded by the other dimension. But its application is conditional and depends on the. Such an approach leads to a more realistic approach of Shotokan. But it also requires critical thinking. Because Shotokanka must learn to judge when to fight or to focus on sports, way of living, and social philosophy.

A very young Hirokazu Kanazawa during Kumite training. He coined Shotokan Karate Philosophy again in a very non-competitive and budo oriented direction.
A very young Hirokazu Kanazawa during Kumite training. He coined Shotokan Karate Philosophy again in a very non-competitive and budo oriented direction.

The Advantages of Diversity

Only with exposure to other approaches, claims, and notions Shotokan Karateka develop critical thinking and deeper insights. If there would be only one of the above-mentioned dimensions, Shotokan would be a static art. Diversity, however, can lead to a constant competition of ideas within an open discourse. That will result in a vital evolution of Shotokan. This requires also that we understand grand masters as people who have added pieces to the puzzle instead of geniuses without fail. Like Newton said: Everybody is a dwarf  standing on the shoulders of giants. Our giants are the teachings of the grand masters and the different Shotokan approaches. They help us to see further than we could without them. The diversity of Shotokan is a blessing.

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We Fight the Way We Practice! Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art

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 practice

Miyamoto 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.

At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.
At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.

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.

Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina at the JKA World Championship
Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina

Fighting for Self-Defense

Michael Ehrenreichs book "Selbstverteidigung" at Amazon
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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?

Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.
Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.

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.

Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.
Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.

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.

At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre
At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre

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?

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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.

Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training
Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training

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.

Michael Ehrenreich leading a class and guides through randori
Michael Ehrenreich leading a class. For him, randori must be part of the Shotokan Karate curriculum

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.