10. Karate–An Incomplete Art?

karate kick
A karateka executes a kick...or is it a kick followed by a throw?

—Got your attention, didn’t I? –Especially all you karate folk out there, I bet.

Actually, I’m not casting aspersions on karate; far from it. The same could be said of several other popularly taught martial arts, but in particular, I wanted to note that karate as taught nowadays may be only half the art it was when it was first developed. Or one-third, come to think of it.

First: if there is no weapons training in karate, then a whole lot of stuff is just lost. In Hawaii, there are a plethora of Okinawan and Japanese style karate schools that do include Okinawa kobudo, or traditional Okinawan weaponry. Although taught somewhat separately, as a wing of Okinawan martial arts, it augments and reinforces “empty hand” techniques. Some schools eschew weapons work, for whatever reason. I think that’s a bad idea. Working with weapons is fun, first of all. It’s a great switch from the usual karate training. Secondly, as anyone who has done unarmed and armed training will attest,  weapons work sharpens your unarmed skills in terms of greater understanding of force projection, distancing and timing.

Many Shotokan schools appear to have no weapons work at all, for example. That’s unfortunate. I recall seeing the late Shotokan master Asai Tetsuhiko give a seminar and he pointedly encouraged the karate students to study traditional Okinawan kata outside of the usual Shotokan oeuvre, as well as pick up weapons work. (And he showed some amazing defensive techniques which utilized almost aikido-like movement and throws, more on the grappling part a bit later in this article.)

So that’s one third of karate. The other third is, of course, what people are currently doing: Karate kata, arranged or free form sparring, basics. Auxiliary training, such as hitting makiwara, bags, other people. That’s basically karate as we know and love it.

But…and here much of the following is my opinion, reinforced by two threads of thought, one based on observation and research, and the other anecdotal: If you don’t become cognizant of some form of grappling, you’re only doing half-assed karate, not the full-buttocks version.

Here’s the more salient argument: Last summer (2009), I was advising Charles Goodin (http://hikari.us) on putting together a show on Okinawan karate in Hawaii at the University of Hawaii. Charles is the founder of the Hawaii Karate Museum and the Hikari Dojo, and practices a very traditional (but innovative) form of Okinawan karate. The show was commemorating his donation of hundreds of priceless books on karate to the Asia Collection of the UH Library. Goodin, besides collecting books from all over the world, spent years interviewing and collecting artifacts and photographs of karate teachers and their training in Hawaii.

Among the many historical photos on display, Charles had several photos of prewar Okinawans known for their karate participating in Okinawan sumo. Some of the photos showed them posing, bare-chested, with trophies, or in judo-style outfits. Other photos were of them actually grappling with each other on the turf, using grips on each other’s belts, Japanese sumo-style.

Charles said he discovered that many, many Okinawan karate players of the prewar era were very much involved in Okinawan sumo. The Okinawan version of sumo was much more like a form of freestyle wrestling than the current style of sport sumo. Or, it was a lot like judo, with a multiplicity of sweeps, trips and hip throws. When he probed further, the really, really old guys (or their descendants) said, yes, many of the old masters would note that in order to truly understand karate, one had to know grappling. Karate kata wasn’t just punching and kicking, it was also imbued with a lot of grappling techniques, and to not know how they were applied is to not know half a kata’s meanings.

That was a revelation to me, although I suspect Charles and other highly trained karateka knew this.

So not only is a block in a kata not necessarily a block, it may not even be a strike! It could be a lead-in to a throw. How would you know? Only if you practiced some form of throwing and grappling.

My other argument is more anecdotal. In my jujutsu class is one student who is a high ranking karateka. He said that many times, a light bulb goes on in his head when we are doing a kata and he realizes the movements and setups are exactly the same as some odd, problematic (like, “what the heck does this MEAN?”) movements in many karate kata. Sometimes previous breakdowns of the kata using only punching, blocking and kicking explanations are insufficient or forced, but when he studies some jujutsu techniques and sees how it mirrors a movement in a single person kata, he says it all makes a whole lot of sense.

Those two examples, now that I think about it, are not isolated arguments. In a recent documentary program, Morio Higaonna showed some higher level Goju-ryu methods.  They involved blocking and trapping a strike and dislocating the limbs of the opponent; very, very jujutsu-ish, but all apparently part and parcel of his Okinawan Goju-ryu style.

Even when I was training in karate, many decades ago, before karate sparring became more regulated and rules-bound, my Japanese-style karate sensei thought nothing of grabbing a slow or errant punch or leg of mine and then sweeping me to the mats, to be followed by his gleeful use of some judo pins, chokes or arm-bars. He said that in Japan, sparring used to be just that kind of rough-and-tumble affair. When you closed the gap and got up close, nothing kept you from throwing your partner to the ground and grappling.

I don’t think karate folk need to return to that kind of sparring, which led to a lot of concussions, sprains, chipped teeth, black-and-blues and all sorts of abrasions and black eyes. But I do think that if you leave out a study of grappling: throws, locks, pins, etc., you leave out half the knowledge contained in karate kata. You run the risk of forgetting how to follow up a punch or block with a sweep or lock, as one smooth and wholistic methodology of combat.

The best karate teachers, such as Charles or Higaonna sensei, will incorporate grappling as an integral part of learning the bunkai (explanations) of the kata, and introduce separate training lessons regarding break-falls, throwing, locking and dislocating techniques.

The problem is that so much has already been lost, and so many karate folk don’t really know this. It has to be recovered. The good thing is that it’s all there, right in plain sight, in the kata.


15 thoughts on “10. Karate–An Incomplete Art?

  1. I think the same (or mirror opposite) happens in a lot of other arts. I’m a student of aikido and am having a blast with all the lightbulb moments I’ve had in the past couple of years where the “throws” suddenly morph into strikes, locks, or god-knows-what, in the same way that a picture of a bunch of white rabbits turns into a bunch of black birds. It saddens me to think that there are tons of people out there who are missing out on “the other part” of their art.
    Thanks for the article!

    1. Matthew, yes, I think it goes without saying. I think somewhere Ueshiba Morihei is quoted cryptically as saying something like aikido is full of atemi, or something to that effect. Very strange, since you usually don’t see nage doing much atemi.

  2. Hey Matt, nice to see you hanging around “Wayne’s Place” and to read your comments about your lightbulb moments. At a certain point, your intent is take the moment and it doesn’t occur to you to figure out what to do… you have to figure out what happened after the fact.

  3. Nice photo of Sensei Alan Lee there. There’s a video of him doing the goju ryu kata seisan on Youtube. His Senbukan group still do some really good old time karate.

  4. I agree on Karate being incomplete today, but it has not always been that way. So many of the old masters with this knowledge of bunkai were sadly lost during WW2. My hope is that the knowledge is still locked in the kata’s waiting to be re-discovered. However it is hard to seperate the wheat from the chaff to know if these are real techniques or flights of fancy.

    1. Stuart,
      Very much agree with you. As I noted, the older sensei used to know it, as evidenced in Hawaii at least by records of many of them enjoying Okinawan sumo wrestling as participants and as officials, and by oral history recorded by my friend, Charles Goodin. The trick is recovering what’s been lost, through surviving teachers who remember them, or through reconstruction. I think really good teachers, like Higaonna Morio of Okinawa Goju-ryu, has lots of knowledge of grappling techniques within the traditional kata. So all is not entirely lost.

  5. Wayne sensei:

    I believe it was Ueshiba Morihei who first referred to karate as an “incomplete” art. He seems to have revised his thinking after working with Mabuni Kenwa sensei on the kata that the Ryobukai folks call Seiryu and the shito-ryu folks call Aoyagi and/or Myojo (the two forms are sister kata).

    If you get a chance, take a look at the “seito” shito-ryu kata created by Mabuni Kenwa. The grappling in those forms is so obvious to anyone who has been involved in grappling arts that it leaps out at you. Mabuni sensei made deragatory comments about the “Tokyo crowd” and how they didn’t understand that grappling was part and parcel of “real” karate.


    Hank Prohm
    Salem, Oregon

  6. Hank,

    Thanks for the comment. Also, if you comment again, just call me “Wayne.” I don’t force anybody, even my own students, to call me sensei. Maybe my college students should, though. I teach computer graphics and a little more respect would be nice from them…Interesting comment, though. I’ll try to find a video of the kata you mentioned. The actual idea for this blog came from a karateka, Charles Goodin, who discovered that a lot of Okinawan karate teachers “back in the day” naturally were also Okinawan sumo wrestlers. He then talked to his own sensei in Okinawa and found out that the “old style” included LOTS of grappling. I can see how Mabuni Kenwa find lots of problems with the “updated” karate he saw growing in Tokyo. When I saw Asai Tetsuhiko of the JKA, I was surprised that he demonstrated a lot more grappling than I was expecting, and encouraged his Shotokan students to go to Okinawa and study with the Okinawan teachers to “rediscover” the roots of karate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s