Thursday, June 01, 2006


Three realms of karate
An inclusive model for defining the art

By Gunnar Nordahl
1st Vice President, European Karate Federation
Executive Committee Member, World Karate Federation

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Defining karate

The World Karate Federation (formerly World Union of Karate-do Federations) have a documented membership (documented by National Olympic Committees) of over a hundred and seventy national federations and eleven million individual practitioners. Despite its huge following world-wide, there is still a great deal of opinions on what karate is or what it should be. Without some alignment on what the activity is all about, it is hard to achieve a coordinated effort in development and promotion. These discussions will unfortunately often have much the same flavor as discussions between religious devotees. Faith becomes more important than fact, and it is typically assumed that there is one right answer for what is “true” karate, and any other viewpoint will be viewed as heresy. Is it a martial art, a way of life, a philosophy, a combat system or a sport? In order to reach any sort of contentious, I think one first has to agree that karate is indeed different things to different people. Realizing this, we might appreciate the diversity of karate and its potential as an activity for people of very different needs and goals.

Despite in the great variation in thinking of what karate is all about, the content of the actual activity is often surprisingly uniform regardless of definition of purpose. Almost all schools, styles and system base their activity on three main forms of training: basics (kihon), forms (kata) and sparring (kumite), use a belt ranking system where the practitioners are evaluated on the performance in these three activities and a selection of techniques that at large are very similar. Most Okinawan, and some Japanese, styles also teach kobudo (traditional weapons) in addition to empty unarmed techniques. Almost all schools have in retrospect adopted most of the techniques and training methods that first become part of karate after the development of karate as a sport.

Karate is often marketed as “traditional Japanese” – or as an “ancient art”. The activity in its current form is, however, primarily a twentieth century phenomenon. Even though karate has many very old roots to Chinese and Okinawan traditions, many of the characteristics, such as the attire, the belt system, and the aspect of being a method for character development, are all characteristics that was added as karate was introduced to mainland Japan from Okinawa in the early nineteen hundreds. Given this, one could probably argue that karate, as we know it today, is Japanese - but probably more adapted to Japanese tradition than actually being one unto itself.

I would argue that we should allow karate to be different things to different people and also a different thing to the same individual in the course of the practitioner’s life. The unusual, and great asset of karate is that it both gives the possibility of being a life long activity where one may gear the activity, and focus on different aspects, according to both personal needs and age. It is my opinion that we should view karate as having three interwoven, but distinctly different, aspects that are all part of the activity we today call karate:

Martial art (Karate-Do)
Combat method (Karate-Jutsu)
Sport (Sport Karate)

Each of these aspects serves different purposes for the practitioner. To a large extent these activities compliment each other, but still serve very different objectives, and require different approaches in reaching said objectives.

I have attempted to illustrate the relationship between these three facets of karate by the following model:

The evolution of the three aspects of karate

The original purpose of karate was for combat purposes. The ultimate purpose of the techniques was to overcome the opponent. It was a tool for survival. As many other military disciplines karate would eventually evolve into a martial art. The transition from combat discipline to martial art becomes evident when form becomes a means unto itself without necessarily having a functional purpose in overcoming an opponent. The person to overcome is more oneself than an external threat. The measuring stick for progress is the individual’s own improvement rather any other person. The further transition into a sport reintroduces the idea of an opponent, but the ultimate purpose has changed from survival to winning. The concept of sportive competition makes the participant consider the opponent’s safety as well as one’s own.

Karate is a vehicle serving the purpose of the practitioner. It is a tool and a skill that in it self is not inherently good or evil. Karate certainly installs discipline in the practitioner, but discipline may not in itself be moral. In the core of the model I have put “your own values”. Values will vary with culture or religious conviction. It is absolutely pertinent that we do not affix any particular religious or political belief to karate itself. In organizing the activity we may agree on conventions such as democracy and respect of human rights, but this is in the realm of the organization rather than the activity itself.

The roles of the Trainers and the Practitioners

Quite often the karate trainer will assume the role of being the adepts guide far beyond the dojo. This may not always be a desirable arrangement. Being proficient in karate does not necessarily mean that one is qualified as a sage or spiritual guide. Albeit that respect for knowledge also has its place within karate, the relationship between trainer and practitioner need not be that of master and disciple. The roles within each of the suggested aspects of karate may be quite different. Within the realm of being a martial art the role of the Trainer is that of the Teacher conveying the most often rigid curriculum to the student who strives for perfection according to a given norm. For the combat aspect the Trainer’s role is more that of an Instructor teaching a skill required for handling a specific situation. This is more the role of the “Drill Sergeant” and the Soldier, or the Range Master and the Shooter.

Within the range of competition the relationship is that of the Coach and the Athlete. The Coach is directly supporting the practitioner in the training and competition effort, as opposed to the Instructor priming a combatant for a situation where he/she has to perform without support.

The relationship to the training forms

In the model presented the overlap between martial art and combat discipline is given as basics (kihon), between combat discipline and sporty as sparring (kumite) and between martial art and sport as form practice (kata). This is not to be interpreted that the martial art does not concern itself with sparring, or the sport with basic training, but illustrates the main relationship between any two of the three aspects of karate that constitutes the model.

Karate seems destined to remain a collection of sects and styles that emerge more often for self-promotion and financial reasons, than due to any genuine technical development. In the realm of competition there has been some standardization by recognizing kata from the four major styles only. Increased competitiveness in sparring competitions has long since eradicated the mark of the styles for this type of competition. Efficiency dictates the performance rather than stylized form.

On the positive side, the style organizations are the greatest promoters in spreading and popularizing karate around the world. The competition between these organization may often be greater than the corporation – but they are still the entities that actually carry out the work of promoting karate. While we hopefully will have a greater deal of dialogue and corporation between styles in the future, I think it worthwhile that we in the meantime try to come to some consensus on what karate is. This model is my humble contribution to such a debate.

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