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Karate is the most ancient and deadly art of self-defence

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Sport on Friday, 27 April 2012

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This edited article about karate originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 696 published on 17 May 1975.

You can spend months perfecting a Karate blow for a specially important competition and still be disqualified if you land it!

A waste of time? Not at all, for much of the Karate expert’s skill is far too deadly to use “for real”, and it is quite sufficient for him to show that he is familiar with a particular attack without actually following it through.

Karate is a Martial Art in which almost anything goes, but only when fighting for one’s life against an enemy. In the dojo or training centre it is considered an act of almost unforgivable incompetence if one injures an opponent, and one that brings immediate disgrace.

Karate is probably the oldest of the Martial Arts, and is traceable through ancient Chinese writing of 3000 years ago, although this does not mean that all Karate is necessarily Chinese. The word itself is Japanese and means “the empty hand”, a term that covers a number of techniques of fighting with only one’s natural weapons. There are Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Okinawan forms of this particularly deadly art of self defence. Of all of them, the best known is probably Okinawan, modified and improved by the Japanese.

The people of the island of Okinawa seem to have a natural gift for unarmed combat. They were among the first experts in Ju-jitsu and took readily to Tode or Chinese Boxing, a ballet-like accomplishment, full of slow, graceful movements and employing little violence. Then the Chinese, who in those days were the masters of Okinawa, issued an order forbidding the possession of any kind of weapon. Disobedience meant death, but the men of Okinawa had no intention of submitting meekly to their oppressors, so they promptly settled down to the task of turning Tode into an aggressive form of unarmed fighting that would make weapons unnecessary.

Then times changed. The age of Chinese domination gave way to Japanese rule, and the Okinawans continued to perfect their own special way of fighting. But this time it was the invaders who were fascinated by the new art and began to learn it for themselves. In fact they learned so quickly that it was a Japanese master, Funakoshi, who gave the first demonstration of Karate in Japan in 1917. It was watched with tremendous enthusiasm, and a new sport was born.

The essential difference between Judo and Karate is that the former is a type of wrestling, whereas the Karateka seeks to strike his opponent with a blow delivered by hand, fist, elbow or by a kick. One might even say that it is a form of boxing, in which the feet are used as much as fists. But it is this fact that makes Karate a sport that should only be followed under a skilled instructor, for whereas a boxer tries to hit his opponent and wears padded gloves in order to avoid inflicting serious injuries, the Karateka fights bare-handed and bare-footed and consequently has to make absolutely sure that attacks to vital areas never connect.

Karate varies enormously from place to place, and there are nearly 20 forms of the art taught in the United States alone. This means that it is very difficult to lay down hard and fast rules for this rapidly growing sport, or to say what is and what is not a universal technique.

Certainly many of the popularly held ideas about Karate could hardly be further from the truth. Karatekas do not spend their time learning how to break bricks with their bare hands or to smash their fists through timber doors. The Karate expert can do such things, but considers them as a not very important demonstration of the fact that if the clenched fist is capable of delivery of a certain force, such force will be infinitely more effective if delivered by a much smaller area, such as the extended fingers or the side of the palm.

In the days when Karate was used in earnest by the unarmed people of Okinawa, they took it for granted that the enemy would be attacking with either a sword or a knife, so a piece of hard wood or a short, rod-like weapon known as a Sai was used by every islander as an aid to defence.

Only as time passed was it realised that special exercises, such as regularly striking the Makiwara or straw-covered post, could develop pads of tissue of almost metal-like strength. It was by demonstrating the effectiveness of such exercises that some of the Japanese masters gave the impression that such feats were the beginning and end of Karate, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Anyone wishing to learn more of Karate should not find it difficult. There is a dojo to be found in most towns and, as with Judo, students should make a point of finding out what kind of instruction is offered before joining. The equipment required is much the same as for Judo, a two piece canvas garment known as a Keikogi, with the jacket fastened by a belt tied low on the waist.

Karate is not practised on a padded mat but on a polished wooden floor, as though to give further proof that this particular Martial Art has more in common with boxing than with wrestling.

Grades are also similar to those awarded in Judo, consisting of the beginner’s Kyus or classes, leading to the more expert Dans or steps. Belts of different colours are awarded to Karatekas who pass the various tests. Beginners start at the highest number Kyu, whereas the Dan grades start at the lowest number. The most usual belt colours are as follows:

9th Kyu – White belt with red thread
8th Kyu – White with red thread and one bar
7th Kyu – White with red thread and 2 bars
6th Kyu – White with red thread and 3 bars
5th Kyu – Yellow with red thread
4th Kyu – Orange with red thread
3rd Kyu – Green with red thread
2nd Kyu – Blue with red thread
1st Kyu – Brown with red thread
1st Dan – Black belt with red thread
2nd Dan – Black belt with red thread and 2 bars
3rd Dan – Black with red thread and 3 bars
4th Dan – Black with red thread and 4 bars
5th Dan – Red belt

How long does it take before one can reasonably hope to wear the coveted Black Belt? Obviously this depends very much on the natural aptitude of the pupil and the amount of time he is prepared to devote to his sport. But a fit young man who is willing to train two or three times a week might be expected to pass the tests for 1st Kyu within 2 years. It would probably take as long again to qualify for 1st Dan, with 3 to 5 years intervals between the grades, rising to perhaps 20 years of hard practice for the rarely attained 5th Dan.

Much of a candidate’s success in the higher grades of Karate depends on his performance of what are known as the Katas or exercises, in which rows of Karatekas defend and attack in their own equivalent of shadow boxing. Each Kata is a mental exercise as much as a physical one, and is aimed at teaching the student that until he can master his opponent with his mind he has little chance of success.

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