Everything You Wanted to Know About Karate
(but felt too intimidated by macho black belts to ask)

The problem with karate is that it doesn’t know how to define itself. Contrast this with some of its near or apparent near cousins. Boxing can be easily described as a sport. The rules are fairly clear in the amateur game, and even in the pro arena, where the various federations may differ slightly over some technical issues, the principles remain the same, and the casual observer as well as the cognoscenti can understand the game. Judo again, by virtue of its Olympic association, is clearly and unequivocally a sport. Jiu Jitsu as practised in the west is invariably a self-defence system, emphasising practical combat solutions (or allegedly practical - all I am interested in for this discussion is how these systems can be defined, not whether any individual school might meet any standard imposed by such a definition!). Aikido offers a self-improvement package, acting upon mind and body with a series of exercises through the medium of a set of calisthenic principles. Kung fu, in general (although I accept there are myriad variants and approaches) emphasises similar aspirations, but with a broadly Chinese philosophical outlook.
Karate, on the other hand cannot so easily be pigeonholed. Not only has the wide range of interpretations been a key factor in the proliferation of associations and styles, styles within associations, and associations within styles, but ask any two instructors within an individual club how they define their karate and I’ll bet handsomely that you’ll get two different answers. (Unless those instructors are from one of the groups that brainwashes all their officers, Millbank style, with the “party line”- but, no, I’ll save that for another article).
So, to help the curious beginner or outsider, and perhaps to lead the more experienced of you to consider these questions for yourselves, I have attempted to answer some of the most common queries I get fired at me in the average bar-room conversation.
So what is karate then?
Literally “Empty Hand”, karate is the Japanified version of a number of Chinese and Okinawan fighting systems. It is characterised by a lot of ritual drills and exercises designed to train particular aspects of fighting skills. The use of the character for “Kara” (Empty), plus the occasional insertion of the suffix “Do" (way, or path) in the term point up the importance of Zen philosophy in karate practice. (The character for “Kara” is also used to denote the Zen concept of ”The Void”, and “Do” is accepted to mean a metaphorical -or metaphysical-  path to enlightenment.)
What’s the difference between karate & Kung Fu?
Broadly, nothing other than geography, although there may be subtle philosophical differences, in the selection of the path to enlightenment.

What’s all this about style?
Any two individuals in any pursuit will have their own “style”. In karate, egos and disagreements have over the years led to establishment of formal “Ryu” or schools, favouring, or purporting to favour a particular set of principles.
Which is the best style?
This is an erroneous, misinformed question. If there were a truly superior Ryu, Darwin says all the others would have died out. The best style for an individual is the one that most nearly matches his needs.
A street fighter will always beat a black belt in a punch-up won’t he?
The truth is, it’s hard to beat practical experience. In general the study of karate in a civilised environment can only be theoretical. The nearer the training gets to modelling real combative stresses, the better the karateka’s chances of victory in a confrontation. There are other considerations though. A regularly-training karateka will have heightened levels of fitness and reaction times which can’t be at all bad. Sheer aggressive intent is an important factor in a fight. Often a thug will have this in spades.
What are the coloured belt rankings?
As a rule the darker the belt, the higher the grade. The junior grades are called “Kyu” and typically there are between eight and ten from novice to black belt. As the colour rankings vary from group to group it is impossible to generalise, although often a novice wears a white or red belt, and in most systems, brown immediately precedes the black belt or “Dan” rankings. In some systems the very high ranking masters revert to a red or red and white belt. This is supposed to denote completing the circle from no apparent form in a novice, through highly stylised precision of the expert to the natural, formless bearing of a true master. The Japanese call this state “
Mushin, Mukamae” (No mind, no form).
What’s the highest grade you can achieve?
As a general rule, a head of a school or association will be a sixth to tenth Dan. Usually, grades above 5th Dan are honorary, and awarded by one’s peers, or by a departing or dying head of school.
Will a fifth Dan always beat a fourth Dan, and so on?
Depends on a load of factors. Whilst experience counts for an awful lot, the range of standards applied when awarding grades can skew the picture massively. Furthermore, of course a younger, fitter, stronger fighter can have quite an advantage over a more experienced older man. Some people may claim that a true master transcends the physical, and will always have the edge, but be very sceptical of this kind of claim.
Are the Japanese much better than everyone else?
No. In competition, the Brits, the Americans, and other Europeans have been beating the Japanese at their own game for years. Similarly, there are some great Occidental instructors theses days. As a gross generalisation, the Japanese have been resolutely conservative in their approach, and not changed their methods much. To continue to play at world level in spite of this says a lot for their attitude.
Have you ever had to use it in a fight?
Karate training builds confidence, fitness and a general level of alertness. All these help in avoiding conflict. Furthermore, as karate training provides an outlet for aggression, the need for any extra-curricular violence is obviated. I can cite dozens of occasions where a would-be aggressor has backed down, presumably because some animal instinct recognised my superior confidence. So, “Yes” would be my answer.
But all this fancy stuff wouldn’t work in the street. You can’t beat a good old-fashioned kick in the groin.
Kin Geri is one of the staples of most karate systems. But we train to perfect the kick in the groin. We also train to create, or recognise the opportunity to deliver, the coup de grace.
But what if he’s got a gun / knife / ICBM?
Run like the clappers. Unless you’ve got a bigger gun, knife or portable bomb shelter.
I want my child to learn to defend himself- which style would you recommend?
Stay away from Karate for kids under 12 years old. In the main karate teachers are either thugs or anoraks. The very worst are both! Furthermore, there’s no safe way to practise. If you don’t hit objects, there’s no useful feedback, and you risk damaging bones and joints. If you do hit objects, you risk damaging joints. If you allow kids to hit each other, that’s neither safe nor satisfactory. Get your kids started on Judo. The contact is good for your child’s physical development, and grappling offers a much more morally-defensible training regime. (Throws and restraints are much more socially acceptable than blows to the joints and vital organs). Above all, though, check out your teacher’s credentials, and watch a few lessons. Are you happy to leave him or her in loco parentis?
Is it true you have to register your hands with the police as lethal weapons?
No. Nor can I catch bullets in my teeth, or float six inches above the ground.
Could you kill someone with a single blow?
In theory, this is physiologically possible, but I don’t know, or want to know anyone who has first hand experience of this.
Do you have to be a Bhuddist / meditate to be really good?
Not at all. Some really good practitioners train on a purely physical level, but the additional rewards that a spiritual dimension can bring are immense, and recommended.
Copyright Martyn Skipper February 2001
Martyn Skipper holds third dans in Henka Ryu and Shotokan karate but has avoided the constraints of style by exposing himself to many schools and styles in 28 years of training. He is currently practicing Shukokai in
East Lancashire. To contact him for seminars, or to discuss any issues from his articles, email him on: martyn@henka-ryu.co.uk