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The 3k’s Are Not Enough

I’m sure that there have been karate teachers in every generation who have tried to make karate practice as relevant to real fighting (as they understood it), and as safe to practice as possible. If you are a really concerned about your students it just comes with the territory . Those today who look outside of the standard 3k’s ( kata, kumite, and kihon) approach to training are not that different.

I have been to a fair number of dojo over the years. Most of the instructors at these dojo, if asked what constitutes karate training would reflexively give an answer that in some way that describes the 3k approach. Though I think the 3 k’s are necessary in order to call a fighting practice karate, I do not believe that the 3k approach is sufficient for developing capable fighters. This statement should not really be that threatening. In fact in even the most tightly formatted, JKA type schools I have visited, there was more going on than the 3k’s. We tend to minimize a lot of what goes on in karate learning communities when we use the default 3k description.

Reality Based Training is Worth Including

Most of the karate training I have seen ignores issues critical to success in real world encounters. Things like training on different surfaces; training to know how to, and being able to, exploit ones environment; and training to prepare for the inevitable psychological, physiological, and perceptile effects one is likely experience in a real fight are too often trumped by kata memorization. These are things that people involved in the reality based movement in the martial arts have spent a great deal of time thinking about with, in my opinion, good results. I am not claiming that karate people should abandon kata practice or that basic punching and kicking drills should entirely be replaced with reality based combat training in order to be relevant to personal defense. I am claiming that incorporating some of the lessons that may be learned from the reality based movement could be extremely valuable for karate people. If one of the functions of kata are to serve as mnemonics to help us remember and categorize techniques then reality based programs can help us imagine and practice those techniques with a deeper sense of the contexts within which they may have to be used. I do not see how this contradicts tradition.

Changes in a Tradition of Change

The conduct of most typical “traditional” karate classes; including the methods of entering the dojo; whether or not training is even done in a dojo; the practice of seated meditation prior to training; the recitation of the dojo kun; the osu(ing); the lining up; the counting in cadence; the norms determining how and when it is appropriate to ask questions, what questions are appropriate, and the methods of dress are all things that have as much to do with Japanese customs (and adopted Prussian ones) and practices as Okinawan ones. Furthermore, these customs are the customs of a Japan in the specific period in which karate was succeeding in incorporating itself into colleges and universities. This Japan was a Japan tipping towards xenophobia and militarism while fixated on what constituted a Japanese polity, literature, philosophy and art.

Karate has changed a great deal over the years. The increase in the amount of time devoted to, and the types of kumite practiced (even the development of jiyu kumite) from Funakoshi’s day to the present further attests to this process. Regardless of how one feels about sport karate it seems evident to me that training in kumite, including free sparring, improves a persons ability to respond extemporaneously to unscripted attacks. In the last few years It has become popular in traditionalist circles to deny the real world relevance of kumite, instead favoring kata and bunkai work. I think it is possible to practice kumite while simultaneously bearing in mind that it is not a fully faithful representation of real world combat.

Changes and TKRI


The group I lead practices kihon and some pretty basic forms of kumite that require more than a little suspension of disbelief (3x and 5x sparring, engagements with simple lunging attacks etc). For some folks this stuff seems like an absolute waste of time, for others it, with kata, is all that one is required to practice in order to develop as a karateka . I am not fully in either category. The basic kumite drills help us build confidence in our new students. It also give us a chance to work on posture, begin to think about distancing, targeting, shifting our weight, and angling. We also use simplified, more abstract and safer representations of attacks to allow students to work on developing explosive responses safely. This is not an exhaustive list of benefits.

Because I do not think that this sort of training is that helpful by itself in teaching students either how to attack, or how to survive being attacked, I try to transition them into more vigorous encounters as soon as possible. These usually involve less abstract kinds of attacks, and more complex reactions on the part of the person defending. Even though I do not like sport karate and feel like kata practice has a lot to commend it, I still believe that karate is better off having incorporated a wider variety of sparring type engagements. Of course there are other open drills besides free sparring that we do as well. We try to relate what we have learned from the open drills to the more tightly scripted and formated partner work and kata that we do. We also include aspects of reality based training such as role playing, affect training, and the use of props. I feel that all of the aspects of our training have been enhanced by the inclusion of free sparring into the curriculum by previous generations of teachers. I hope that my own efforts to incorporate reality based ideas into our partner work at TKRI will be similarly useful.

Changes and TKRI

Warm ups and Conditioning

Years ago one of the groups I trained with used to practice reverse butterflies (sort of a double legged hurdler’s stretch). These were done every class during the warm-up period. It hurt me to do them and they left my knees feeling “loose”. I was convinced that the instructor knew what he was talking about when he said that they would help my side and round kicks so I kept trying to do them. It turns out he didn’t know what he was talking about. This is an exercise that should never be done, especially by people who rely heavily on their knees to shift, lift, turn, and rapidly change direction. A few trips to the athletic trainer’s office of a local University convinced me that being able to count to ten in Japanese does not make one qualified to dispense fitness and conditioning advice. Needless to say the trainer did not think it was a good idea to do these, and he had a few choice things to say about the qualifications of anyone in involved in sport who recommended them.

All sorts of crazy, unscientific ideas regarding conditioning abound in many so called traditional clubs. I quit doing the reverse butterfly stretches, felt better, and recommended in turn that my students avoid them as well. I did not feel any less traditional for leaving out this little gem. In fact I felt that preserving the next generation’s health would be something that any ‘venerable ancestor’ would endorse.

It is now becoming popular to use older implements like the chishi for conditioning. I use chishi regularly and I have quite a collection of homemade ones. I feel a great deal of pride when my group is spread out around my garden banging on the various makiwara and heavy bags, pulling on inner tubes (thank you Elmar), and hoisting chishi.

I am quite certain that the chishi, if it is too heavy for the user, and is used poorly, can cause damage to the shoulders. It does not matter to me that many senior goju people and others have used them forever and report no apparent harm. Anecdotal evidence matters little in science. Goju and other similar arts that are particularly vigorous tend to be self selecting for people whose bodies can handle this sort of activity. I am not saying that chishi use is bad, I am simply asserting that this should not be a sacred cow, it deserves investigation. It is worth asking yourself what it is you are hoping to gain by the use of the chishi (or any training method), and then asking the follow up question “is this the optimal way to realize that gain in terms of risk versus benefit?”. Traditionalist should not be afraid of this kind of analysis, they should embrace it.

Changes and TKRI

Oral Traditions, Acculturation, and Historical Claims

When the veracity of historical claims are successfully challenged traditions are inevitably changed. As I was coming up I heard all sorts of tall tales about karate. I was young and gullible. I absorbed these romantic stories like a sponge. This was certainly a part of my acculturation and was arguably a part of a tradition (written however small). Thanks to some time spent reading books by authors like John Sells, Harry Cook, Mark Bishop, and others I am no longer so gullible. My students do not get told those tall tales, and they do not do reverse butterflies. They do read books I assign. Changes, see?

To me the single most important aspect of these traditions is the responsibility we have toward one another. The responsibility that a teacher or senior has toward students or juniors eclipses any responsibility she has to mimic past methods, especially when better methods and better information are available.

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


November 2008

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