I had some friends and family over the other day for my daughter’s birthday party. During the party one of the children, seeing some karate related photographs, said to me “I could beat you up if you didn’t use your karate”. This child is in his early teens and suffers from an autism related condition that makes it difficult for him to understand social niceties. I nodded and told him he looked pretty strong.

I expect that most of us who have practiced karate for any length of time have probably had someone say some version of the “I could beat you up if you didn’t use karate” statement to us. I started training at an early age and I remember hearing it quite a lot on the playground. I usually suspected the person saying it had too high an opinion of the utility of my karate skills. I never really knew how I should react.

I would have immediately forgotten about this exchange except that it related to something that has been banging around in my head for a long time; that is, it seems to me that the way people think about karate is substantially different than the way they think about other violent sports or activities. Generally you do not hear people saying things like “I could beat you up if you didn’t box”, or “wrestle” or whatever.

The boxer’s fitness, toughness, skill, and dedication is obvious as soon as he steps in the ring. It seems to go without saying that there is more to the boxer than boxing techniques. A boxer is a special sort of human being. Regardless of how useful boxing skills are ‘on the street’, it seems clear that it is impossible to succeed in boxing without being a ferociously determined, dedicated, tough, and extremely fit person.

Unfortunately, decades of exaggerated claims by street corner masters, legions of kiddie karate black-belts, an abundance of “Power Ranger” type television shows, and far too many super-sized sensei who would never think about actually getting off of their venerable butts to actually train, have created the perfect storm for karate. Surely if there is anything uniquely valuable in karate it has to have something to do with its techniques rather than with the people practicing it (or so you can imagine someone concluding).

The funny thing about this is that, from my experience anyway, it is exactly the reverse; I have little confidence in the techniques of karate, techniques cannot fight. The old saw goes “techniques are tools (or weapons), they are only useful when used by a skilled fighter”. I would go further, techniques are simply movements that may be useful depending on how one’s opponent is positioned and moving. They are only metaphorically like hammers, swords or sticks. They possess no magical properties. They are movements of human flesh and bone.

Techniques require strength, balance, strategy, and agility to use. We will be the ones who will bite when pinned to the ground, and we will taste the blood. In order to really be able to fight we must use our flesh and bone to rehearse injuring another human being. We must do this until we have overcome our natural aversion to harming another person.

It is not ippon nukite that will gouge the eyes of our opponent when we have dropped him on his back. It is not empi uchi that will strike the back of our opponent’s head when we have seized him by the throat. It is not karate whose balance will be refined through hours practicing kicks or spending time on wobble boards. It is not karate whose legs will ache after hours of squats and lunges. It is not karate whose hand-eye coordination will be refined on speed bags, and whose fists and fortitude will be conditioned by hitting the makiwara.

It is not karate who must be vigilant about not becoming inappropriately violent and aggressive. It will not be karate that carries around the moral and psychological wound of not knowing if the action we took in our defense was sufficient or excessive. It is you and I, the persons engaged with the practice of karate who make karate real or not, brutal or not, effective or not.

My engagement with karate has shaped every aspect of my being. I began training as a child. My interest in karate motivated me to read everything from martial arts technical manuals, to books on military history, fitness and conditioning, Asian history, Asian art, martial arts histories, boxing, wrestling, comparative religion, and philosophy. It helped me expand my circle of friends and acquaintances, and these people helped me decide what the norms were in terms of dealing with pain, injuries, frustrations of all sorts, humor, and even politeness.

Many times I have  gotten my clock cleaned by acquaintances  who were boxers, judoka, wrestlers, or whatever while trying to figure out how to better use my karate or trying to refine it. Being robbed at gun point at one job; mugged at a train station another time; and seeing a friend beaten by a couple of thugs, while feeling entirely useless because nothing like what I had trained for matched what I found myself facing, caused me to reconsider every aspect of my practice of karate.

Some of my training partners and students over the years have dealt with much worse violence than I ever have. Their stories have also shaped my training, which continues to effect me in countless ways.

Since those experiences I have had others, I lived for a while in an area overrun by gangs and found myself dealing with violence and its fallout a few times. In none of these cases did I feel like I handled everything about the situations ideally, but those earlier experiences helped me be more prepared. They taught me that a karate based on technique was not sufficient.

The conclusion I have come to, almost by accident, is that all the other stuff, the striving, the determination, the dealing with frustration, the fitness, has been at least as valuable as any karate technique. I have no idea what sort of fighter I would be if I had not spent so many years practicing karate, in fact I have no idea what sort of person I would be.