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Reviving Karate's Credibility

Posted Apr 21 2008 6:00pm

In a recent article, Shotokan karate expert Rob Redmond asks whether the self defense applications (bunkai) of kata (practice forms) have any real historical roots or if most of the ones taught today are just newfangled techniques that have been created to keep up with the current trend of reality fighting. Redmond maintains that there is at least a new and growing interest in the discovery and meaning of karate's kata applications.

One of the tenets of the traditional camp is that the essence of true karate is martial in nature. Karate's deadliest techniques are to be found in its bunkai, not on the tournament deck. "We can't use real karate in sport" rings true. On the other hand Musashi's sage advice "How you train is how it happens" is exemplified in stories of certain black belts getting walloped in street fights. Much of this has to do with training methods that have developed over long periods of time. As Forrest Morgan points out in Living the Martial Way, "...for all the hoopla about training and techniques, most martial artists can't really fight." Historian Donn Draeger once noted that the goal of training in the budo (martial ways) is to embark on a path to self-perfection. In this way, actual fighting prowess is acquired only as a "by-product." As I see it, most martial artists aren't really seeking something as lofty as self-perfection from their training. Self preservation is more like it, and that's where the bunkai of karate forms practice comes in. I think most of you would agree that there's a strong correlation between what's shown in bunkai and close quarter self defense.

So are karate students learning "ancient, hidden" techniques encrypted in kata that date back to antiquity? Many of karate's earliest pioneers in the West had only a pedestrian's understanding of kata and its applications, at least in the beginning. I've talked with a number of long time practitioners who swear that the level of bunkai and kata training available today far exceeds what was taught years ago. Whether this is in response to the immense popularity of mixed martial arts or other styles remains unclear. For now it seems we have the innovation of creative (and hopefully proficient) karateka who may be just trying to keep up with the Jones' as it were. I see nothing wrong with that. Innovative modern techniques presented within the context of traditional kata sounds like an idea whose time has come.
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