Mayfield Renshukan Karate Club

Traditional Shotokan Karate Club

What is Karate-Do

by Sensei O Gichin Funakoshi From Karate-do Kyohan

In Okinawa, a miraculous and mysterious martial art has come down to us from the past. It is said that one who masters its techniques can defend himself readily without resort to weapons and can perform remarkable feats: the breaking of several thick boards with his fist or ceiling panels of a room with a kick. With his shuto ("sword hand") he can kill a bull with a single stroke; he can pierce the flank of a horse with his open hand; he can cross a room grasping the beams of the ceiling with his fingers, crush a green bamboo stalk with his bare hand, shear a hemp rope with a twist, or gouge soft rock with his hands.

Some consider these aspects of this miraculous and mysterious martial art to be the essence of Karate-do. But such feats are a small part of karate, playing a role analogous to the straw-cutting test of kendo [Japanese fencing], and it is erroneous to think that there is no more to Karate-do than this. In fact, true Karate-do places weight upon spiritual rather than physical matters, as we shall discuss. True Karate-do is this: that in daily life, one's mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.


Karate-do is a martial art peculiar to Okinawa in its origins. Although it has in the past tended to be confused with Chinese boxing because of the use of the chinese "kara" character in its earlier name, in fact for the past thousand years, the study and practice of masters and experts, through which it was nurtured and perfected and formed into the unified martial art that it is today, took place in Okinawa. It is, therefore, not a distortion to represent it as an Okinawan martial art.

One may ask why the chinese "kara" character has been retained for so long. As I discuss in the section "The Development of Karate-do," I believe that at the time the influence of Chinese culture was at its peak in Japan, many experts in the martial arts traveled to China to practice Chinese boxing. With their new knowledge, they altered the existing martial art, called Okinawa-te, weeding out its bad points and adding good points to it, thus working it into an elegant art.

It may be speculated that they considered "kara" (with the chinese character) an appropriate new name. Since, even in contemporary Japan, there are many people who are impressed by anything that is foreign, it is not difficult to imagine the high regard for anything Chinese that prevailed during that period in Okinawa. Even at the time of the present writer's youth, lack of a full set of Chinese furniture and furnishings in one's home was a serious impediment to the social influence of any leading family. With this background, the reason for the choice of the chinese "kara" character, meaning "Chinese," as a simple case of exoticism is apparent.

Following tradition, the writer has in the past continued to use the chinese character. However, because of the frequent confusion with Chinese boxing, and the fact that the Okinawan martial art may now be considered a Japanese martial art, it is inappropriate, and in a sense degrading, to continue use of the old "kara" in the name. For this reason, in spite of many protests, we have abandoned the use of it to replace it with the new character KARA.

The Meaning of Kara

The first connotation of kara indicates that karate is a technique that permits one to defend himself with his bare hands and fists without weapons.

Second, just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karate-do purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he understand that which he receives. This is another meaning of the element kara in Karate-do.

Next, he who would study Karate-do must always strive to be inwardly humble and outwardly gentle. However, once he has decided to stand up for the cause of justice, then he must have the courage expressed in the saying, "Even if it must be ten million foes, I go!" Thus, he is like the green bamboo stalk: hollow (kara) inside, straight, and with knots, that is, unselfish, gentle, and moderate. This meaning is also contained in the element kara of Karate-do.

Finally, in a fundamental way, the form of the universe is emptiness (kara), and, thus, emptiness is form itself. There are many kinds of martial arts, judo, kendo, sojitsu ("spear techniques"), bojitsu ("stick techniques"), and others, but at a fundamental level all these arts rest on the same basis as Karate-do. It is no exaggeration to say that the original sense of Karate-do is at one with the basis of all martial arts. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form itself. The kara of Karate-do has this meaning.

The History of Karate-Do

Funakoshi sensei was doing quite alot to promote his art in his homeland of Okinawa. Word eventually made its way to Japan, which as we all know had a very rich martial history. So, in 1917, Gichin Funakoshi was invited to Japan to demonstrate his karate at the Butokuden in Kyoto.

Funakoshi continued to travel to Japan giving exhibitions, but Shotokan's "big" break came in 1922. The Japanese Minsitry of Education asked Funakoshi to participate in a demonstration of ancient Japanese martial arts at the Women's Higher Normal School in Tokyo. After the demonstration, Gichin was approached by Jigaro Kano, the founder of judo. He asked Funakoshi to stay longer in Japan and show him (Kano) some basic techniques.

Months later, when he next tried to leave, Funakoshi was approached by the painter Hoan Kosugi. He also wanted instruction in karate for himself and members of his artists group. So, Funakoshi again postponed returning home and began first organized teaching of karate in Japan at the Tabata Poplar Club. While teaching at Tabata, Funakoshi decided to remain in Japan. He would spend the rest of his life teaching karate to the Japanese people.

While in Japan, Funakoshi wrote the first book ever on karate. Entitled "Ryukyu Kempo: Karate". The book was designed by Hoan Kosugi, who is also credited with designing the Shotokan tiger. Four years later the book was re-released with the new title "Renten Goshin Karate-jitsu". His next book, "Karate-do Kyohan" was written in 1935.

Funakoshi continued to teach and give exhibitions. In 1928, he was asked to give a demonstration for the royal family of Japan. For Funakoshi this would have been enough but of honor, but it was made all the greater because the demonstration was done on the palace grounds!

Karate's popularity continued to grow. Karate clubs had been and continued to spring up at colleges, universities and businesses throughout Japan. All this time, Funakoshi kept a dojo at the Meisei Juku. However, time and an 1923 earthquake eventually created the need for a new place to train.

Funakoshi was offered to use space at the kendo hall of Hiromichi Nakayama. Eventually, Funakoshi was given another great honor. Nationwide, karate practioners chipped in to pay for the construction of a dojo dedicated to the instruction of Funakoshi's karate. In 1936, the Shoto-kan was born!


Kihon Sanbon (three step sparring)

Sanbon kumite is the most basic form of sparring practiced by students in the Challenge Karate Organization. It involves two people working as partners, with one of the partners training attacking and the other training counterattacking techniques and strategies. The attacking side moves toward the counterattacking partner while doing exactly the same technique three times in succession, hence the name.

In the most basic form of sanbon kumite, the specific attacking technique is assigned by the instructor, and each of the three sequential attacks is initiated by commands from the instructor. Later, all three of the sequential attacks are executed independently by the attacking partner. In either case, both partners know before starting which techniques will be done, and which target areas are to be struck in a given three attack exchange.

The attacking partner begins by stepping forward from shizentai into a front stance, downward block (zenkutsu-dachi, gedan-barai) position. The counterattacking partner awaits the first attack in the shizentai position. The counterattacking partner generally executes some form of blocking technique in response to each attack, and responds with a counterattacking technique only after the third attack is completed.

Kihon Ippon (one step sparring)

Ippon kumite is also considered a basic or kihon form of sparring. It is generally introduced when students have been training at least six months and have achieved the rank of shichi-kyu (7th step of student). Kihon ippon kumite is quite similar to kihon sanbon kumite except that each attacking/counter-attacking strategy is executed only once before the exchange is stopped.

Attacks are still initiated from the basic starting position (zenkutsu-dachi, gedan-barai), and the counterattacking partner awaits the attack in shizentai. The attacks are generally more varied in ippon kumite than in sanbon kumite, and the counterattacking partner must respond with a counterattacking technique after every attack.

Jiyu-Ippon (semi-free sparring)

Jiyu-ippon kumite is the introduction to freestyle sparring. It is similar to kihon ippon kumite in that the attacking partner only executes a single attacking technique or combination in a given exchange, to which the counterattacking partner must respond by blocking or avoiding and then counterattacking. In its elementary or introductory form, both partners may also know which techniques and targets are to be used.

This, however, is where the similarities cease. Both partners begin jiyu-ippon kumite in jiyu-dachi (freestyle stance), and both may move around at will to achieve more advantageous positions. In the most advanced form of jiyu-ippon kumite, the only things known in advance are which of the partners is the attacking side, and that kumite will be stopped after a single attacking/counter-attacking exchange.

Jiyu (free sparring)

Jiyu kumite is the most complex and challenging form of two-person sparring. In this case either partner may attack at any time, using any single or series of techniques, to any single or series of targets. Exchanges are not necessarily limited to a single attacking/counter-attacking confrontation, and the possible combinations of factors including timing, technique, speed, direction, strategy, etc., make the exchanges infinitely varied.

Jiyu kumite may be introduced to students who have been training for nearly 2 years, and have achieved a rank of at least san-kyu (third step student). Generally though, jiyu kumite is introduced to students who commit to more serious and strenuous training by joining a training team.


Kata are the time capsules of karate whose technique, when properly understood, reveal practical responses to the habitual acts of physical violence which have plagued the human race from the very beginning.

Kata has "traditionally" served the principal vehicle through which the "secrets" of karate have been handed down over the generations

Kata are a geometrical collection of defensive & offensive technique.

The defensive themes & corresponding application principles intertwined within the technical myriad called kata unfolded only after untold generations of empirical observation and practical experience

It has always been the human body, its unique function and common anatomical weaknesses which have ultimately dictated how personal tools of impact, ways of seizing and methods of transferring both low intensity & higher velocity kinetic force impede motor performance. Knowledge of this UNIVERSAL TRUTH (or lack thereof.)

Based upon this universal truth, man (Chinese, Okinawan, American etc.) has continually pursued different ways through which to learn and improve these infinite principles.

Chinese spiritual recluses in monastic sanctuaries, dedicated to living in harmony with nature and their fellow man believed that if and when the human ondition (EGO) could be harnessed, the need for physical violence could be reduced to pure chance.

These reclusive architects ultimately identified and catalogue no less than 36 different defensive themes. In an effort to address each of these random yet habitual acts of physical violence, that plagued the plebeian society in which they dwelt. With continued study as many as 72 different variations were meticulously systematized.

Ultimately, eighteen individual exercises (called hsing/kata) came to represent a total of 108 defensive themes and application principles. Historically, this phenomena represents the foundation upon which the kata of *Okinawan* karate unfolded.

Kata are comprised of 5 principal sets of tools.

  • 1. Punches,
  • 2. Kicks,
  • 3. Blocks,
  • 4, Stances
  • 5. Strikes.

Historically 6 kinds of exercises were used to facilitate the development of kata. 1. Techniques of punching, 2. Kicking methods, leg maneuvers & and associated practices, 3. Posturing, 4. The use of the empty hand, 5. Corresponding tools of impact, & 6. Checking, trapping & blocking.

Long ago, before written language, the ancient tribes of man passed their knowledge on through physical emulation; the very roots of the kata phenomenon. This living phenomenon not only served as an excellent vehicle through which to impart existing knowledge, it also provided the very platform upon which more progressive learners could extrapolate and interpolate more improved methods of studying infinite principles.

The fundamental concept of kata is not the commodity of any one specific culture, but rather the product of humanity. As civilization evolved, language developed, and the tribes of man took on individual characteristics, so too did his rituals reflect such changes. Built upon ancient customs, profound spiritual conviction & disciplined social ideology, the kata of Karatedo is a microcosm of the austere culture from whence it comes.

If not balanced by moral philosophy & spiritual Introspection Kata is little more than a physical pursuit. One can never get beyond the immediate results of physical training, without looking inward. Kata (which is karatedo) teaches that the source of human weakness is internal, not external. Hence, the journey must always be inward, not outward.

Discovering that the source of human weakness lies within reveals the location where our personal battles must be first fought and won before inner-harmony can ever be achieved and the living of daily life improved. Karatedo cannot exist without a body of moral philosophy to govern the behavior of those who embrace its empowering practice. Learning kata without its corresponding philosophy creates a terrible imbalance, which is usually reflected in attitude, character and behavior.

The fundamental principles upon which the theory & application of kata rest can be explained in both Western science & Eastern tradition. (Please be certain to look out for the IRKRS & DSI forthcoming publication outlining this pedagogy.)

Kata can be an interesting alternative to conventional Western physical fitness, 2. Practiced as one part of a rule-bound sport, 3. A conduit through which defensive themes and corresponding application principles are imparted. 4. Meditation in motion.

Ritualized practices are invariably reinterpreted to meet the numerous and varying demands of that generation's more progressive teacher/learner. When such a phenomenon occurs, the interpretation invariably leaves a signature residue representing the understanding of the person(s) responsible for it.

Aims & objectives must always be supported by corresponding training methods. If kata was forged to be used against a fighter in an arena, warrior on the battlefield or any other kind of MUTUAL confrontation, its configuration and training method would be diametrically different to the way they are. This does not preclude that application principles cannot be used against the said adversaries, but only suggests that they were originally developed, and constantly improved upon, for the expressed purpose of being used by average people against someone who had little or no understanding of such application principles.

In an attempt to establish teaching curriculums for the body of knowledge possessed, various kata were brought together by various Uchinanchu (Okinawans) in an effort to produce a personal delivery system.

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