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Ten karate myths debunked

Karate is great fun, and a good way to exercise body and mind. However, an awful lot of errant nonsense is believed, both by people who practise karate and by those who only ever see it in movies. So here is my attempt to put the record straight.

Karate is an ancient art

It is entirely possible to trace the development of karate to ancient times,

but only to the extent that it is possible to trace the development of any

formalized fighting skills to ancient times. Fighting goes back a long way, as

one might expect. Formalized training in fighting skills must surely go back as

far as there have been societies that wanted to protect their independence from

their neighbours. But this does not, in itself, mean that karate is

an ancient art.

The name `karate' with its present sense of `empty hand' only goes back to the 1930s. It appears that Gichin Funakoshi, who brought his own interpretation of Okinawan martial arts to Japan at that time, also promoted the Japanese word `kara' (empty) as an interpretation of the Chinese symbol to-de. to-de can also be interpreted as `Chinese hands', a phrase used by Okinawans to denote the Chinese origins that they ascribed to their various martial arts.

Funakoshi's great achievement was to turn `Chinese hands' into something the Japanese could relate to, and thereby turn an obscure regional fighting style into a global movement. However, in doing so he literally invented karate practise as we understand it. The things that we now associate with karate -- white suits, coloured belts, bowing, ranks, militaristic ritual, etc -- were all borrowed from judo by Funakoshi. So, in fact, karate as we understand it goes back only about 70 years. That's a respectable time, to be sure, but we aren't talking about the mists of antiquity here.

Karate is good for fitness training

If only! I've been training regularly in martial arts for over thirty years, and I've never found that it improved my fitness. And of all the various martial arts around, karate is probably the worst for fitness training. The problem is that karate training tends to involve intense bursts of activity interspersed with standing still. To improve your general fitness you need a steady, moderate level of exercise that lasts for a fair amount of time. Running, swimming, cycling, and walking all qualify; karate usually doesn't.

Where karate scores over running, etc., as a form of exercise is that it's quite interesting. Most forms of aerobic exercise that are carried on outside the bedroom are deadly dull. So while you may only get the same amount of aerobic activity from 90 minutes of karate that you get from 15 minutes of running, it's possible to contemplate 90 minutes of karate without slashing your wrists, which is more than can be said of running.

Bowing and formality is an essential part of karate training

It is entirely appropriate that people who are about to pound the lights out of each other should make some gesture of mutual respect before they set about it. Boxers touch gloves before a match, fencers give a little flourish of blades, and practitioners of kali escrima make a funky little masonic handshake with their fists cupped in their open hands.

I think also that it is wholly sensible that, before training, the class has a collective moment of composure, so that everyone gets the message that they are about to start doing something that needs to be taken seriously.

This is particularly important where children are involved. However, many clubs seem to take this too far, and I think that they do so more out of a vague sense of Japanophilia than for any sensible purpose. There is no reason to decorate your dojo like a Japanese temple. In Japan, karate is done in school halls and leisure centres just as it is in the West. There is no reason to hang Japanese slogans on the walls, especially if no-one can read them. There is no reason to make obeisance to the founders of karate -- they are dead, and beyond mortal concern.

Many karate practitioners feel that karate is a Japanese art, and that their training practices should be rooted in Japan. But consider this: would you expect a Japanese rugby football team to carry on its training in pidgin English? Would you expect the team headquarters to be decorated with Union Jacks and horse brasses? Would you expect the players to finish a match, drink ten pints of lager and get into the showers together while singing Eskimo Nell? Of course you wouldn't. But that's what many British karate clubs are doing, in effect.

He's a green belt; that means he's advanced/intermediate/a beginner

The system of belt colours, if it is used at all, varies greatly from one club or organization to another. Most independent clubs, that is, clubs not associated with one of the big governing bodies, use relatively few belt colours. The club I trained at whilst I was an undergraduate student had only four: white, yellow, brown, and black. The club I attend now has ten, including some with stripes. For two years I trained at a club in the East End of London that had no belts or uniforms at all. Some clubs have everyone wear white belts until they reach black-belt standard.

The advantage of using many different belt colours is obvious: it gives a very visible indication of progress. Many adults need that, and children need it even more. In a very large club, where the instructors do not have detailed personal knowledge of every student's capabilities, labelling students with their competence makes it easier to organize classes.

In any case, it's important to realize that belt colours are chosen by karate clubs to meet their own purposes, not according to some sort of objective standard. This is not a criticism -- the fact that there are many different kinds of karate club means that you can probably find one that suits you if you look hard enough.

`Black belt' is a universal standard

Some clubs and organizations take pride in making it exceptionally difficult for students to be recognized as black belts. Some even go so far as to impose age restrictions. Others recognize that `black belt' is something that many karate students aspire to, and realize that it has to be within reach if the student's interest is to be maintained. Now, it seems perfectly obvious to me that if one organization can get students from beginner to black belt in two years, and another takes ten years, the standards of proficiency of newly-qualified black belts from the two organizations cannot possibly be the same.

In reality, the standards of proficiency of karate practitioners of nominally the same grade varies enormously even in the same club, so naturally it varies even more between clubs.

Karate training will eventually come to hurt less

I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that the reason making a low kokutsu-dachi stance hurts my knees is because I don't train hard enough. I'm fortunate enough to at last have come across an instructor who is more honest. While I was scowling in pain after walking around in back stance for an hour he said

``Don't worry, it will only hurt while you're alive.''

Move number X in kata Y should be a block, not a strike (or vice versa)

Many karate practitioners like to believe that the kata they practice are of ancient origin, and no doubt some are. However, the huge variations I've seen in the way kata are taught in different clubs does not give me any confidence that the `true' moves can ever be known with certainty. In big organizations like the JKA and the KUGB, the people at the top can impose their own views on how kata should be performed, but that doesn't mean that their variations are more `authentic' than anyone else's. There is no general agreement even on what kata training was originally intended to achieve, so how can there be agreement on the individual moves?

To master karate, one must achieve inner peace and tranquility

I know some extremely competent karate players who are as far from inner tranquility as it's possible to get. Personally, I think that the whole idea that practising martial arts makes one a better person is a load of cobblers. To be sure, there are those who feel that the routine of karate gives them a sense of the oneness of all things and a glimpse of satori, and to those people I say: good luck to you. What karate gives me is joint stiffness, sweat, and hard breathing.

If I train hard enough, I will become a samurai warrior

Why would you want to? The samurai were, for most of their history, a bunch of hired thugs. It is not clear at what point legends of the samurai got tangled up with Zen and bushido, but undoubtedly our modern view of the Japanese warrior bureaucracy owes more to James Clavell than to history. There is a parallel here with the knights of mediaeval Europe -- our cultural understanding of knightly behaviour comes entirely from fiction. This romanticisation of the past was mercilessly parodied by Cervantes in Don Quixote, a book about an elderly, misguided knight who goes off on a deluded quest for no good purpose, and comes to an ignoble end. I don't know who the Japanese equivalent to Quixote is, but there ought to be one. It surely has to be time to separate karate from all this nonsense about the `warrior code' and such-like.

There are secret karate techniques known only to the most advanced practitioners

Have you ever wondered how some martial artists can punch through an eight-inch thickness of concrete slabs? I'm going to let you into a closely-guarded secret here, so listen carefully. All you have to do is -- are you paying attention? -- all you have to do is to practice punching hard objects for years and years and years. That's all there is to it. But don't tell anyone I told you, because it's a secret.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]