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How can Sport Karate Become Respected Again?

The picture shows children fighting is sport karate gloves. Thus, we ask the question:Is Shotokan effective?

Sport Karate has lost the respect of the global budo karate and combat fighter community. The reasons for this has been the sanitizing of karate to make it more attractive for the Olympic Games. But this project has failed. Now it is time to consider reforms of Sport Karate, to make it respected again. A proposal of reforms in the column Shotokan Essence by T.D. McKinnon

A Proposal of Reforms

Olympic Karate has been talked about, at least, since my heyday as a fighter in Scotland in the 1970s. The tournament organizers have been sanitizing competition Karate ever since, to present a more visually attractive event to the Olympic committee.

But has the whole sanitizing exercise been worth it?

With France leaving Karate off the agenda for the 2024 Paris Olympics, in favor of breakdancing, it appears that the Olympic dream might begin and end at the 2020/21 Tokyo Olympics.

Therefore, the answer must be: No, it has not been worth it.

With the sensitization, sport karate has also lost a lot of respect within the Budo Karate and combat fighter communities. Yahara Mikio Sensei, when asked for his opinion of today’s sport Karate, is reported to have said, “No… no, this is not sport Karate… this maybe ‘sport fighting’, but this is not Karate.” I myself call modern sport karate ‘martial ping pong’ rather than a Martial Art.

Therefore, since the Olympic dream is over, let us start to envision how sport karate could regain its credibility. To do so, I will review a few elements in the WKF rule system and consider how they could be changed for the better. With a focus on Kumite, I will finish with a proposal of how future sport karate could and should look.

Sport Karate and World Karate Federation Rules

Within WKF point scoring competition, a score is awarded when a technique is performed according to the following criteria:

  • Good form,
  • sporting attitude,
  • vigorous application,
  • awareness,
  • good timing and
  • correct distancing.

Once these criteria have been met it depends on the technique how many points a fighter receives. I give you a brief overview here:

Ippon (3 points) is awarded for:

  • Jodan kicks
  • Any scoring technique delivered on a thrown or fallen opponent.

Waza-ari (2 points) is awarded for:

  • Chudan kicks.

Yuko (1 point) is awarded for:

  • Chudan or Jodan Tsuki
  • Jodan or Chudan Uchi.

Shortcomings of Sport Karate: WKF Rules and 4 Areas for Reform

So, where are the shortcomings of the WKF rule system? Following I discuss 4 areas of reform which are fundamental to karate. However, willfully or not, the WKF has neglected them.

1) The Lack of Kime

The first area stands at the center of karate: the concept of Kime. In the WKF rules, Kime is mentioned in the ‘Kata points to be considered’. However, it is yet not mentioned in the ‘Kumite points to be considered’. Why is that? There seems to be a lack of understanding of exactly what Kime is. And although Zanshin is not mentioned in the criteria it is mentioned in the latest rule changes (page 13 article VI) as a criterion often missing in a scoring technique. However, while I agree in regard to Zanshin, in my observation, Kime is the element most often missing from WKF competition scoring techniques.

Because Lack of Kime = lack of intent, that the controlled technique would indeed do the damage it represents. A technique can be ‘delivered vigorously’ (WKF criteria) and have no ‘Kime’. More acceptable, from a Budo standpoint, would be ‘delivered vigorously with Kime!’

2) The Role of Referees in WKF Competitions

In WKF competition, the referee conducts the competition but doesn’t seem to make any decisions concerning the actual scoring. Unless a corner judge shows a flag the referee cannot award a score. At the latest Australian Karate Federation (Australian national level of WKF) Championships, I observed missed flag calls on several occasions. No wonder. It is difficult enough to control a bout, let alone, simultaneously, watch for flag calls. Conversely, I did see referees, having recognized a scoring technique, stopping the bout; however, with no flag support, the referee was forced to restart the bout without awarding a point.

The picture shows that the Olympic Dream of the WKF is over. That is the reason why reforms of sport karate should be considered.
The Olympic Dream of the WKF is over!

3) Yuko is Unnecessary

In my competition days (and still in Shobu Ippon and Shobu Sanbon), an Ippon was a decisive strike leaving the opponent with no chance of defending against it. It had to be delivered with Kime, while balanced and in a state of Zanshin. A slightly less decisive technique would score a Waza-ari; two Waza-ari equaled one Ippon. Cleanly delivered kicks to the head and strikes to a downed opponent generally scored Ippon. However, any technique, regardless of its nature, delivered with all the scoring criteria in place could score an Ippon, if it was considered a decisive technique.

Many years ago, I watched (the legendary tournament fighter) Frank Brennan Sensei, subtly, encourage his opponent to attack with mawashi geri. Mid-kick, Frank executed a gyaku tsuki that knock him to the floor. Frank scored an Ippon, and his opponent received a Mubobi (unprotected while attacking recklessly). The epitome of timing!

With WKF criteria in today’s competition rules, a Yuko might be awarded for the gyaku tsuki; if indeed a warning isn’t given for excessive contact.

As mentioned in the WKF Rule Book – affective from 1.01.2019 – page 13 article X:

‘A worthless technique is a worthless technique – regardless of where and how it is delivered. A bad technique, which is badly deficient in good form, or lacking power, will score nothing.’

Quite right, it should score nothing. From a Budo standpoint: a technique that has not managed to touch enough bases to score a Waza-ari and has no potential to cause damage should score nothing. So where is the point of a Yuko?

And yet, technically, one Yuko can win a match. Indeed, one Yuko could win an Olympic Gold Medal. From a Budo standpoint, that is just wrong. Only a karateka, who really prevails, should win a fight.

4) Senshu Rule and Hikiwaki

Senshu rule: in the event of a draw, the fighter to have scored the first point in the match wins. This rule is questionable. In my competition days, I liked to claim a psychological edge by getting the first score. However, from a fighter’s viewpoint, the Senshu rule is nonsense. This rule creates the incentive to get the first point, which is usually a yuko, under any circumstances.

Even worse is the Hantei rule, whereupon a drawn match cannot be decided by Senshu, i.e. no score given. An arbitrary vote is taken. Hantei is another rule that, from a fighter’s perspective is nonsense. What if a fighter focuses on a counter-strategy? Hantei fosters hyper-active fighters instead of fighters with Zanshin.

In the event of Hikiwaki (a draw) we had Enchousen, a one-minute extension rule. If, at the end of that time, it was still a tie the ‘sudden death’ rule was applied (first score wins). Those rules worked well. They were quick, simple and easy for competitors, officials and audiences to understand.

Reforms of the WKF rules are necessary

Sport is generally considered good for an individual, especially the young: teaching many of life’s lessons. But sport is not for everyone. Not everyone benefits from the kind of stress that accompanies competition with others. Nevertheless, even for those who don’t wish to compete, seeing your art performed, realistically, at an elite level is enlivening.

However, flash and showmanship have replaced Budo and practicality in sport Karate. Not only has this trend lost the respect of the martial arts world, traditionalists and the martial combat fighters alike, but also the wider community. To reform the four mentioned areas would be at least a first step to a more acceptable approach of sport karate.

True Karate-Do Spirit is missing

I have felt for some time that the true spirit of Karate-Do is missing from sport Karate, particularly the WKF. It’s a shame, because competition on such a wide, varied, multi styled level could be a positive, developmental element in Karate-Do. It was for me. However, the tendency for the sport to take precedence, as in many purely sport orientated organizations, diminishes the understanding of the larger picture: Karate-Do.

Karate-Do is far more than sport, more than Budo even. Karate-Do is a way of life, a competition with one’s self: ‘to be better today than you were yesterday.’ Rather than

merely honing and perfecting a few athletic techniques, the goal is being better in an expansive, holistic way.

Shobu Sanbon as Alternative

As for the sport: for what it’s worth, to close the ever-widening gap between the sport and the art; I, a life-long karateka, would recommend to the WKF: If the Shobu Ippon format is too restricting, the Shobu Sanbon format could be implemented. It forces the karateka to focus on a few decisive and vigorous techniques but still offers enough time and space for spectacular action. Of course, if the WKF did that they would need to teach competitors and referees alike the difference between ‘Delivering Vigorously’ and ‘Delivering with Kime’!

This legendary fight between Toshihito Kokubun and Johan Johan LaGrange in Tokyo at the Shoto World Cup 2000 shows how intense and exciting Shobu Sanbon fights can be.
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So Bad Do Shotokan Associations Treat Their National Team Members

To be a member of a national team for a Shotokan association is a honor. However, for some it also becomes a struggle and a burden. In the last few month, we talked to national team members and officials from different European associations about problems and how their superiors and the management body treats them. The stories we have heart indicated the existence of arbitrary decisions, exploitative behavior, and mental abuse in some Shotokan associations. Most of them involved abuse of power, enforcement of economic and politic interest or just show a lack of responsibility for the well being of national team members.

We do not know how widespread these problems are. However, we heart them from different, unconnected people with different backgrounds. In many cases we could not investigate further whether the stories hold water. But the similarity between the narratives suggest systemic flaws in a few European Shotokan associations. Thus, it is in the public interest to make this cases transparent, so that changes can take place, karateka raise their voices, and call for reforms.

Following we are going to present a list of incidences, which people reported to us.

Bring Your Own Money

National squad members, by definition, represent their country on a transnational and international level. Therefore, they have to travel. Especially, intercontinental flights and accommodation in hotels can become highly expensive. For some national squad members this can lead to a heavy financial burden.

Amateur League

Unlike in the WKF the vast majority of national squad members in “traditional” Shotokan associations belong to the group of amateurs. As a result, they do not receive any payment for their activities. This leads in some cases to financially difficulties when, for instance, unpaid vacation days have to be take for travel. In many more cases the karatekas have to cover all the expenses to represent their country abroad, too. And a World Championship can easily generate costs of up to 3000 USD or even more. The costs for the preparation like national team training camps etc. are excluded from this calculation.

Some members cannot effort such amounts. Thus, they depend on the support of their associations. But some refuse to help.

In one case, which was reported to us from a central European country, team members had to beg in the streets of their hometown for donations in order to finance their attendance at a World Championship. Both team members studied at that time. Therefore, money was a scares. However, the association denied any financial help. It also prohibited any external sponsoring because they deemed it as a corruption of the Do. Eventually, the team members ended up asking strangers for money to finance their trip. Because the cost were so high that even their families were not willing to pay all of it.

When Money becomes Retracted

In another case an association retracted its financial support two days before the members had to book their flights. Some team members asked their families and friends. Other used their savings.

Different peoples from different countries reported stories like that. All of them also reported that the associations did not have financial problems at that time. The opposite was the case. In one case they estimated that the national Chief instructor earned up to 150.000 Euros annually since he started this position in the 1970´s.

Actually, Money is not the Issue

In another case the association received financial support from government sources and the National Olympic Committee because it also wanted to let its team start at the Olympics. However, the money drained within the body of officials and the management. Even the national head coaches had to pay for airfare to international tournaments.

For some karateka this not just creates a financial but also mental burden. Shame and stress can occur. To have to decided between representing ones country or whether using the saving for the next notebook, car, or vacation causes tremendous stress. And the team members feel left alone with this problem. That has a huge effect on their performance during tournaments but also on their mental well-being and relationship to the association. Because it undermines their sense of fairness.

Arbitrary Decision Making and More

Another topic in the reports we received revolved around arbitrary, nontransparent, and politically motivated decision making. In some cases this can also become some sort of mental abuse.

Changing Decisions Randomly

For instance, one karateka told us how he traveled to the World Championship with the expectation to start both in kata and kumite. On the day before the competition, the coach told him he would not start in kata although he focused on this discipline during his preparation. No reason was given. For the karateka the whole situation felt more than stressful because he competed also for the first time on an international level.

Too Much Alcohol

Other team members also reported about alcohol abuse of national head coaches and members of the management board. Their superiors forced them to drink alcohol to excess. The coaches also drunk to excess and forced them to do kumite with them. Even stories of drinking games, which head coaches initiated, reached this editorial office. The most disturbing case apparently took place in a hotel room. One of the coaches forced his athletes to hit him as much as they could. According to the witness he wanted to prove the toughness of his generation and that they could stand more pain than the younger karateka.

Others reported how the national head coaches forced them to entertain them during parties. They had to perform kata and kumite on tables and under the influence of alcohol. Not taking part in drinking games meant exclusion from the team.

All of the team members, who reported to us, felt coerced, used, and in some cases abused. They also expected retaliation and other negative consequences if they did not comply to wishes of their coaches and superiors. For some the experiences they made regarding alcohol during their time a team members lead the to the conclusion to never drink alcohol again.

The Case of Roisin Akimoto

The most disturbing case of weird behavior against a national team member took place this summer. It happened between Roisin Akimoto and the technical committee of JKA England. We use the names of the people involved in this case because an email conversation between Roisin and Tony Cronk, Head of JKA England, has been made public on Facebook in July 2019. It can also be found on an anonymous google drive. The email conversation is also available to this editorial office.

To give a brief background: Roisin had been a very successful competitor on an national and international level for JKA England. Her mother was also part of the management board of JKA England but retired this year.

The Email of Dismissal

On May 8, 2019, Tony Cronk wrote an email to Roisin informing her that she will not be considered for further deployments at international tournaments. She was also dismissed from her duties as a national team member. The technical committee decided to remove her. As a reason Tony Cronk mentioned:

When attending competitions squad members are representing our Association
and must remain professional and courteous to everyone regardless of any
personal feelings they may hold. In addition, whilst on the tatami we demand
that our members perform to the best of their ability and uphold the spirit of the
competition.

He referred to Roisins alleged behavior during the last JKA European Championship in Stavanger, Norway, 2019. On the first glimpse this statement indicates that the demeanor of Roisin must have been extremely out of place.

No Explanation Given

However, the head and assistant coach of the team provided a letter that praised her professionalism and friendliness during the whole tournament. Even more disturbing is the fact that no hearing took place. Roisin did not have the chance to comment the allegations and to explain herself. The technical committee reached a decision without considering her side of the story. They used Tony Cronk as intermediary to convey the dismissal to Roisin. Even on her repeated request for an explanation, she did not receive one:

After 15 years of an impeccable competition record for JKA England may I ask why such a brutal decision was made about me without a detailed explanation, an avenue of defence or a formal process? May I also ask why, when the grounds for my dismissal were not because I had broken any rules, which Sensei Ohta stated in our conversation, that I was dismissed? It is difficult for me to understand how this conclusion was reached given that so many squad members before have flagrantly broken squad and JKA England rules without any repercussions.

We inquired. We contacted Roisin and the technical committee. While Roisin replied to us she could not comment on the incident any further. Too stressful and painful was the whole issue for her. She just wanted to leave it behind her and to move on with her life – a life after karate.

The Issue Seems to be Bigger

The technical committee did not reply on our inquiry in July 2019 at all. Therefore, we can only speculate what drove them to their decision. As Roisin in one of her emails to Tony Cronk stated, the retirement of her mother might have been of bigger influence as expected:

I had heard, but neither in detail nor at the time it happened, that my Mother had retired from her role in JKA England. Sensei Ohta said to me during our conversation that her decision to retire from JKA England was a deciding factor in my dismissal. As you know, I’ve lived in Japan for almost 9 years and my distance from the UK often means that my Mother doesn’t tell me about what is going on. After hearing briefly about her retirement and the subsequent tensions that ensued, I was not in a position to be able to fully comprehend the sensitivity of the situation within the Association. Therefore, in order not to appear to be trying to cause further tension, I felt it appropriate to maintain a low profile at the JKA European Championships by focusing on instruction from Squad coaches and supporting other squad members given the position I was in.

According to her tensions between one member of the technical committee and her, which date back to 2014, might also had an influence.

Without having all the facts it seems to be an odd behavior by the technical committee of JKA England to dismiss one of the most accomplished national team members. Regardless of what really happened it shows the asymmetry of power between officials and team members.

Power Asymmetry and the Need for Reforms

The cases presented to us have one thing in common: The karatekas had almost no options to defend themselves against the associations and behaviors of superiors. Ombudsman or procedures for complaints were not in place. In opposite to professional athletes they did not have managers and attorneys who could defend them. Their motive to represent their countries, to challenge themselves, their will to be loyal and to obey, and to become famous made them easy victims for exploitation and abuse.

While the mentioned cases are only anecdotal evidence they should sharpen everybody’s perception for the problem. In some associations a need for reforms has emerged. Other associations are managed well, national team members have a voice, and a system of checks and balances is in place. The first step, however, is to become aware that the problem exist.