Ryukyu Martial Arts Research 琉球武道研究

The pragmatic line of karate throughout history

The pragmatic line of karate throughout history
Sometimes I come across the internet such opinions as "this technique is not good for self-defence", "it doesn't work on street", let alone blatant expressions.
These expressions are due to a narrow and limited perspective or in other cases, total ignorance and misunderstanding of development and karate perception.
But first we should clarify - to reach a target, you must aim for the it. You should use a proper tool and be skillful. To achieve an effective self-defence ability, one must aim for this. Aiming for winning tournament does not necessarily effective for seld-defence. Aiming for civilian self-defence does not necessarily means that it serves the purpose of professional guarding and so on. Hence when we define “pragmatic”, we should note for what purpose.
We can now turn to the discussion of the article: The Pragmatic Line of Karate.
Karate was initially evolved and used by skilled officials, for professional combat environment. It was not originally personal self-defence or street fighting. However, it was also developed in the civilian environment at later period.
As with all martial arts throughout history, sporting competitive elements and combat elements joined to create a unique Okinawan martial art in the early decades of the 20th century. Then karate became popular in Japan and the rest of the world and received a sporting, athletic and aesthetic hue. Yet, in Okinawa, tradition and moral constitute Centre motif. Okinawan Karate characterizes in unique body mechanics that also expressed in certain terms such as Cinkuchi (Kunchi) 一寸力, Ganmaku (Gamaku) 岩捲 and more.
Nowadays, the narrow reference as street self-defence relating to this or that technique, is fundamentally wrong. It is common misconception of karate.
Neither sport karate nor modern karate aim to close-combat or self-defence purpose.
High kicks and round kicks while turning back such as Oshiro-mawashi are not aimed for close-combat. It is simply too long, too complex and too risky. Many stances and body mechanics of Okinawan karate are significantly different than modern karate or sport karate. It may look in modern eyes less shiny and clean, however its much more stable and powerful.

About Kata, Bunkai and Ōyō
Kata 分解 is a form which encapsulates vast knowledge that has accumulates throughout generations. Kata is about many things such as stabilization, body mechanics, maintenance and much more than nice movements or self-defence techniques.
Bunkai 分解means disassembly or deep analysis. It meant to investigate the knowledge within the kata. It is about concept of doing and understanding.
Ōyō 応用 is about application, that means to bring technique into its practical form.
So, it is important not to mix between these three.

In order to produce higher quality, one must specialize in the skill. This is true for every field such as medicine, law, education, sciences and in the military arena too.
Every military unit has its own specification, Air Force, Armor Corps, Infantry, Engineering etc. More than that, there are sub specification. For example, there are aircrafts for bombing, for intercepting, for intelligence, for transportation etc. There are special combat infantry units that operate at sea and under water, others on mountains, some are skilled in snow environment, other operate against terrorism and some serve in secret operations across borders.
The history teaches us that karate originally, followed same pragmatic specification principle.
Karate originally was not intended to be for street self defence as many people think.
Nowadays too, different environments produce different combat scenarios. For example, in some cultural environments most attacks are with short bladed knife sharpen in both sides, and the common attack comes from under to the belly. In other arenas the common instrument is longer sharpen bladed knife on one side, and the attack comes form up. Then we have varied security guards who deal with various scenarios such as civilian security guard, Police Force and Official Personal Security Guard.
Knife-grappling
Above: The way aggressor attacks with knife is also a result of culture and environment parameters.
High skill and long-term practice of grappling techniques is required to effectively control and disarm an aggressor with knife.

That brings us to ancient karate. As mentioned earlier, karate was evolved within official environment as military close combat for various tasks such as guarding the king and his family, securing palaces, diplomatic trading ships on Ryukyu land and overseas. It should be effective to stop an assassinator as well as to overpower an armed pirate groups attacking diplomatic mission.
Originally the Ryukyuan-combat was with both weapons and bare hands. That is both Kobudo and karate. We can clearly find Ryukyuan combat traces in earlier kata.

Security
Security
Above: Traces of techniques used by security guards.

An important historical and practical point to note, is the use of grappling techniques that were much more dominant in the past than today. This is for two reasons. One is simply because of the necessity of such tasks in the official environment those days. This need hardly exists in today's street fighting. The second reason is the high skill required to perform these techniques effectively.

In later time there was no need in the official Ryukyuan-combat, and it was converted into the civilian arena. At that time only few practiced the local Okinawan combat, which was later transformed to what we call “karate”. There were no styles or schools. This is the time when karate was mainly used for strengthening the body and for street self defence, that is “Fighting art” more than “Martial/Military art”.
Karate stepped into the Okinawan education system, mainly for strengthen both body and moral. In that stage karate had to be adapted for students whose large part had never engaged in sports and certainly not in fighting. Indeed, the martial arts underwent a proper transformation. For example, shorter and simpler kata and working patterns were established. Open hands were clenched, and the methods changed. At this stage, practice was with larger groups.
Bunkai-kata
Above: Clenched fist in kata in also potential neck grip to control raging aggressor.

At the beginning of the 20th century the local art received the name, “Karate”. It became popular and spread to Japan and all over the world. Schools were established, classification to styles and categorization of kata gained momentum. Later, sporting competitions began to take place and modern karate changed its character accordingly and became more aesthetically pleasing to the modern competitive arena.
As we can see, Karate has many faces. Some are geared toward professional close-combat, others for civilian self-defence. Then there is the popular sportive plain and the competitive arenas. An additional interesting and successful blessed domain is the therapeutic one, in both motoric and mental fields e.g. ADHD. Last but certainly not least is the traditional one. In Okinawa, Karate is first about ethics, folklore and moral alongside unique body mechanics as well as learning and training methods.
Traditional position
Above: The traditional Okinawan posotion. The back is slightly inclined forward to increase stability. The upper hand is slightly forward as well. The center of gravity is directed at the opponent.

Modern position
Above: The back is upright and the upper hand in the headline. The waist and center of gravity are also aligned.

Above: During the periods, trainees wisely adapted karate art to time, environment and emerging needs. Karate provides strict framework buy yet flexible in few fields. This is the pragmatic line of karate throughout history.

Stagess of Karate
Above: Pragmatic transitions in the essence of karate.

Further reading sources:
About the development of Okinawan Karate techniques from historical and practical aspects: The book Pathways of Karate Development: From Ryūkyū -di 琉球手 & Tou-di 唐手 Via Okinawan-te 沖縄手 to Karate 空手.

Deep dive into karate evolution. Thorough research of history, methodology, culture, philosophy, ethics, heritage, military and civil circles.
The book Karate Uchina-Di 沖縄手 - An Exploration of its Origins and Evolution.

Itzik Cohen
28/04/2020

Back to Articles List