On a lighter Note…

With so many competing ideas out there, it can be a bit confusing to know how to go about training for self-defence situations. Here, Notes from the Training Hall brings you a guide to help you reliably prepare for every self-defence eventuality:


  • The key to good self-defence preparation is the mighty ‘oi-tsuki’, or lunge punch. Have your training partner repeatedly and unerringly use this method of attack from a suitably large distance. Enjoy the wide range of defences you can apply to just this one technique!
  • It’s very important that between you and your training partner you thoroughly choreograph your creative self-defence routines. Responses to unpredictable situations can really only be trained through predictable routine – that’s just logic.
  • It’s always advisable to have a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in place before beginning your self-defence practice. This is to help you defend against those baddies who don’t understand the rules of engagement (such as those multiple attackers who can get a bit over excited and not wait their turn).
  • For those situations that only a head kick can resolve, make sure you have mastered the jumping spinning hook kick. This will also make you look awesome when the CCTV footage of your heroics is posted on YouTube.
  • Having a strong foundation for your technique is also very important, so it’s a good idea to practice in very wide, low stances. At first you may be concerned about the inevitable lack of mobility inherent in using wide, low stances, but don’t worry, after enough repetition you’ll soon forget about such trivial details.
  • Don’t worry too much about the ‘what-ifs’ of self-defence scenarios either. Thoughts of facing an attacker who is willing and able to resort to such underhand tactics as head-butts and biting are anxiety inducing, and frankly below you.
  • Finally, take pride in your preparations. Remember, you have chosen to use your valuable time and energy preparing for situations that the overwhelming majority of people happily manage to avoid and not give a second thought to.
Van Damme

Jumping spinning awesomeness…

Thank you for reading this Lighter Note from the Training Hall, please check back soon as I jot down more Notes…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Quick Note on…

Attention to detail in Kata research…

For those Karate practitioners who fall into the ‘traditionalist’ camp or those who appreciate Karate as a noble repository of cultural knowledge and skill, Kata are King. Despite additional modes of training being added to Karate as it has grown and been exported from its humble beginnings (modes as diverse as military-style Kihon drills and sport-style Kumite), however, none of these have overshadowed the importance of the antique Kata and the skills and techniques they record. Simply put, the antique Kata are traditional Karate[i].

This being said, there is still considerable debate around the purposes for which these antique Kata were intended. Such ambiguity has given rise to many different interpretations, often utilising greater or lesser amounts of creative license.

A point that I would like to raise in this Quick Note is the importance of paying attention to the smaller details when investigating the functions of the antique Kata. Often, it is the smaller details that can at least ‘start the ball rolling’ towards genuine understanding of function.

All too often, it is precisely the smaller details which are ignored, either because they are difficult to explain or, more likely, because they don’t seem to ‘fit’ with the dominant idea that the Kata are records of ‘empty-handed self-defence’. Which raises another important issue: there is significant difference between seeking to understand the Kata with an already fixed idea of what they should be (empty-handed self-defence), and being willing to go where the physical evidence leads (and not ignoring the all-important smaller details).

There are many peculiarities in the antique Kata, but for the sake of brevity I will use just one as an illustrative example:

Shuri-Ken - Shuri FistNaihanchin is well-known antique Kata and certainly falls into the category of having many peculiarities that need explaining. Not the least of these peculiarities is the ‘fist’ that is maintained throughout most of the form (refer to picture on the left). Despite the fact that attempting to punch whilst using this ‘fist’ significantly increases the chances of dislocating or otherwise damaging the forefinger, many continue to insist that Naihanchin records ballistic blocking and striking techniques. In fact, this ‘fist’, in encouraging the practitioner to concentrate on the little, ring and middle fingers in collaboration with the thumb (the strongest digits for gripping), the Naihanchin fist-clench reveals itself as a device for developing a strong grip (Johnson 2006).

In the very least, this ‘small detail’ demands that ballistic interpretations of Naihanchin be discarded and grappling/joint-locking applications explored.


Thank you for reading this Quick Note from the Training Hall, please check back soon as I jot down more Notes…


[i] I use the word antique deliberately as I consider it important to differentiate the original Kata (inherited from China) from the numerous Kata synthesised at later dates.


  • Johnson, N. (2006) The Great Karate Myth: Unravelling the Mystery of Karate. Wykeham Press.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On a lighter Note…

Man with belt tied unevenly brazenly attends class anyway.

The Office - Season 9


Puddletown, Dorset: On Friday 17th June at around 6.50pm, Ken Richards, a local Karate enthusiast, strolled into the training hall of the local Karate club blithely offering friendly greetings to his fellow classmates, such as, ‘Evening’, and, ‘How are you?’

After initially being sucked-in by the carefree cheerfulness of Mr Richards, his fellow classmates are said to have felt ‘shocked, ‘let down’ and ‘unsure of where to look’ when it became apparent that Mr Richards had not tied his belt evenly, leaving one belt end ‘at least a centimetre or two’ longer than the other. Audible ‘tuts’ and disgruntled murmurings are said to have quickly circulated the training hall.

Describing Mr Richards’ belt tying skills as ‘frankly nonchalant’ and ending ‘in a right ole mess’, the deputy instructor for the club stated he that he had felt obliged to hurriedly usher Mr Richards back into the changing room to point out the grave belt tying error and diffuse a potential barrage of indignant protests.

Later, in a formal apology to his classmates, a solemn Mr Richards admitted that he had ignorantly assumed his belt to be a pragmatic tool for keeping his trousers up, and that he ”hadn’t given it much thought, really”. With renewed perspective, Mr Richards has offered assurances that he will never again underestimate the moral imperative of correctly tying his belt and also vowed to address his ‘flagrant cultural insensitivity’.


Thank you for reading this Lighter Note from the Training Hall, please check back soon as I jot down more Notes…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Secrecy and Hidden Techniques

Myth and mystique…

Karate: An ancient and sophisticated Okinawan combat art. Karate: developed under conditions of a weapons ban for fighting the oppressive Satsuma samurai. Karate: trained and passed on in secrecy.

These are just a few of the myths about Karate that have been used by many a commentator in the modern history of Karate. Each of these myths – and many others besides – has contributed to what we might call the mystique of Karate: the on-going romanticism regarding the origins and purpose of Karate in the minds of the vast majority of its practitioners.

Of the mythicized statements listed above, the idea that Karate was trained and passed on from master to disciple in secrecy seems to be a particularly potent contributor to the mystique. In the Note that follows I intend to give some thought to this idea of secrecy that seems to underpin much of the narrative of Karate and think about how it has contributed to the mystique. Further, I also intend to give some thought to how this idea of secrecy has influenced the debates around the central practice of Karate Kata, influencing both the transmission of the Kata and the emergence of ‘hidden technique’ and ‘multiple application’ theories.


The role of secrecy…

karate in the woods

Away from prying eyes…

It’s a well-known story, often repeated in the Karate world: In 1609, Japan invaded Okinawa. Fearing uprisings from the conquered islanders, the invading Satsuma’s enforced a strict ban on both armed and unarmed martial arts practice as part of their oppressive regime. In courageous defiance, the Okinawans developed their sophisticated fighting art (later to be called Karate) in great secrecy. Passed from master to disciple through an oral tradition, with nothing being written down, much of the training in this combat art was conducted indoors, at night, or otherwise shielded from the forbidding eyes of the Japanese.

From this perspective the importance of secrecy to the development of Karate is quite clear: The forging of a sophisticated combat art was a key tool in the heroic struggle to resist complete domination by the Japanese. Secrecy was crucial for the survival of the art, its effectiveness hinging on the opponent’s ignorance of its techniques.

The difficulty with this narrative, however, is that the role that secrecy has to play is reliant on the validity of the social situation described (a weapons ban under oppressive conditions). Recent and very significant research has clearly shown this social situation to have been either a mistaken interpretation of the historical record, or a fabrication[i]. This puts the necessity of secrecy on quite shaky ground and forces a different line of enquiry regarding its relevance.

If the prevailing social situation in 17th Century Okinawa did not in fact necessitate the practice of secrecy, as so often claimed, then it would perhaps be revealing to look at the notion of secrecy itself (as a sociological form) in order to consider the role it may have played in the early development and continued proliferation of Okinawan Karate.

As a sociological form, secrecy is most often instituted for regulation of the flow and distribution of information (in our context, the techniques of Karate). With this in mind, then, it may be more fruitful to consider that the techniques of Karate would only need to be shrouded in mystery and revealed to ‘the most committed of students’ in order that a certain amount of control can be maintained over what is learned and when. This describes the institution of a knowledge economy whereby a hierarchical system can be used to carefully disseminate knowledge of Karate technique in favour of those who claim to know the ‘secrets’. Such a careful system of control also makes a rather useful ‘hook’ for both attracting and retaining students eager to become compliant members of the hierarchical structure (or those who do not know the ‘secrets’).

Of course, with the teaching of a system such as Karate there will inevitably be a knowledge economy, as those ‘who know’ must be responsible for teaching those ‘who do not’. From my perspective, however, this has become a somewhat unscrupulous practice in the Karate world – particularly where claims of ‘secrets to be learned’ have been used in the knowledge economy as a means to bolster the mystique of Karate and to serve as marketing ploys. Also concerning is the fact that the claim of ‘secrets to learn’ is frequently a veneer with little in terms of substance behind it.


No questions please…

There is certainly no reason to think that teachers of Karate (old and modern) do not, and have not, taken advantage of the uncertainty experienced by beginners and the confusion sometimes felt by more experienced students regarding the functions of the Kata (Johnson 2000). With the promise of ‘revealing secrets’ to the most dedicated, a teacher could (and often do) expect obedience from students whilst at the same time clarifying little in terms of the function of Kata and of course, tolerating no questions (much easier to maintain the mystique in this way).

Clearly the notion of ‘secrets’ and ‘hidden techniques’ in Karate continue to have a strong hold over the minds of many practitioners, perhaps because of its novelty value. The functions of the antique Kata that are Karate are widely debated, and those determined to impose an empty-handed combat orientation can often feel that the notion of ‘secrecy’ and ‘hidden techniques’ offer a way of explaining the complex movements in the forms and soothe the itching questions.

Thai boxers

Not an ‘Oi tsuki’ in sight…

As an interesting aside, this would seem to be a problem only where set forms and combat orientations appear together; eminently more practical combat practitioners, such as Thai boxers, rarely have need to speak of secrets (Johnson 2000), nor do they have need for such complex movement patterns, primarily because they lack a usefulness in preparing for empty-handed combat.


Hidden techniques and ‘multiple applications’…

Having given some attention to the more general relationship between Karate and the notion of secrecy, I would like to move on to give some thought to one of the more significant effects this notion has given rise to: ‘multiple application’ theories.

Conventionally accepted wisdom on Kata goes something like this: Kata, or ‘formal exercises’, contain logical sequences of movements which contain offensive and defensive techniques, performed in a particular order. The ancient masters of Karate embedded the secrets of their unique and complete fighting systems in their Kata, meaning that contained within each Kata are almost unlimited combat applications (or bunkai) hidden within each movement. Further, hidden applications are also to be found in the movements between techniques. Although the Kata may appear to the casual observer as complicated dances, sophisticated combat techniques are in fact hidden within plain sight.

Mystique indeed!

Needless to say, thinking as to what constitutes these ‘hidden’ combat techniques varies not just from style to style but frequently from dojo to dojo; there is very little in terms of consensus as to what the techniques recorded in the Kata of Karate are actually for, an ambiguous situation that is in part down to the fact that the enterprise of creating bunkai was not devised until much later than the Kata themselves (Johnson 2006). This of course suggests that the Kata themselves were in existence for some time without known applications, a situation that has created a climate of uncertainty among traditional Karate practitioners.

Motivated by a desire to designate these strange looking Kata as an elaborate form of ‘unarmed combat’, self-styled ‘Kata interpreters’ have long been insisting that these techniques of effective unarmed combat are ‘hidden’ within the movements of the Kata; that complete systems lie within. Speculatively, I think it reasonable to suggest that generating this ‘secrecy’ and ‘hidden techniques’ narrative has only served to divert attention away from the (somewhat uncomfortable) idea that early teachers of Karate didn’t know what the Kata were for. Thus we have the modern situation among traditional Karate practitioners: a lack of cohesion in the understanding of Kata with as many ‘flavours of bunkai’ that can be concocted and designated as ‘hidden’ within the Kata  – so long as they adhere to the dominant ‘unarmed combat’ idea, that is.

As an extension of this ambiguous situation we are also faced with the difficulties of having many conflicting ideas regarding applications of the Kata. Clearly, such a situation presents a problem of a more political nature regarding the continued propagation of Karate as a system of unarmed combat; with an almost unlimited array of interpretations, many groups have settled on the expedient (but utterly flawed) solution of multiple application theories: “this technique is for A B C, but it can also be used for X Y Z, or 1 2 3… etc etc (Johnson 2006). Politically, this is a much safer position for modern traditionalists and has the added benefit of being able to declare the amazing versatility of the Kata and unlimited possibilities can be argued for a single antique Kata!


Can also be used as a screwdriver…

I find such expediency to be lazy research, not to mention that it is likely a complete underestimation of the skill and ingenuity of the original creators of the antique Kata. A theory of ‘multiple application’ for unarmed combat not only overlooks the fact that set forms are completely unnecessary for unarmed combat (given that its highly unpredictable), but also reasons (illogically) that the creators of the forms did not have a specific application for each technique. To imagine that individuals with the intellect and understanding necessary to record specific skills in Kata form would allow for such ambiguity is a thoroughly flawed idea. Clear teaching and dissemination cannot be predicated on an ‘insert your own meaning, it’s all good’’ basis. After all, other significant human endeavours such as engineering, medicine or even general academia would not tolerate such imprecision (Johnson 2006).


 Concluding thoughts…

My intention in this Note has been to briefly cast a critical light on the role that secrecy has played in creating the mystique of Karate, from claims that early Karate was developed and trained under conditions of carefully guarded secrecy, to the idea that complete systems of ‘empty-handed’ combat were hidden within the antique Kata. The notions of secrecy and hidden techniques remain key elements in continuing to promote Karate as a method of empty-handed combat – they tantalise and provide easy answers to much debated problems, which in turn discourages any form of critical thinking.

I have suggested that the continued reliance on notions of ‘secrecy’ and ‘hidden techniques’ in efforts to understand Kata can only lead to deeply flawed conclusions based, as they are, on flawed assumptions. Secrecy and hidden techniques are excellent for ‘muddying the waters’ of clear, critical thinking when it comes to the functions of Kata and moreover provide a cosy protective veneer for any group who wishes to justify their own creative interpretations without rocking the proverbial boat.

Thank you for reading this Note from the Training Hall, please check back soon as I jot down more Notes…




  • Johnson, N (2000) Barefoot Zen: The Shaolin roots of Kung Fu and Karate. Samuel Weiser.
  • Johnson, N (2006) The Great Karate Myth: Unravelling the Mystery of Karate. The Wykeham Press.



[i] For clarification on this see the research of Andreas Quast (Karate 1.0) and Nathan J. Johnson (The Great Karate Myth)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Quick Note on…

Modern Karate as discursive practice

Few in the Martial Arts world today would deny that Karate is an art enjoyed by a worldwide membership, for which I am grateful. But however difficult it is to do, we may have to consider that the now worldwide popularity of Karate, and its presence in the popular imagination, has been largely due to the willingness of the early promoters to institutionalise and neatly package Karate as a commercial product.

From its early days as a cultural export and source of national pride, Karate has been popularised as an art of empty-handed self-defence and defined by rules of expression that have organised and continually shaped this lucrative product, thus limiting a more objective knowledge of it. These rules of expression have not always been formulated as external determinations to impose on practitioners in a deliberate attempt to shape thinking, rather they are better thought of as akin to the grammar of a language; as rules that define what statements can be made (or in this instance, how the meaning of Karate can be determined as self-defence).



And so, armed with only the grammar rules of empty-handed self-defence, unwitting practitioners have only been empowered to construct statements (or perform meanings) in accordance with this definition of Karate. Needless to say, my position is that this discursive practice[1] has limited the understanding of the original purpose of Karate; an art whose original grammar rules – or meanings – have been widely misinterpreted for the benefit of those who would profit from the popularity of self-defence.

Thank you for reading this Quick Note from the Training Hall, please check back soon as I jot down more Notes…

[1] See the works of Michel Foucault

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Performing Karate

Naive imitations… Crane technique

Like many people who have enjoyed an almost life-long association with the Martial Arts, I was once a voracious consumer of any Martial Arts movies I could get my adolescent hands on. Thus was my own enthusiasm for Karate classes fuelled by a steady diet of heroic protagonists who could easily dispatch multiple opponents with high kicks; protagonists bent on waging personal wars with super-human stamina and a miraculous capacity to endure pain. There’s no doubt about it, I was enthralled by the impressively athletic performances and very much wanted to be able to ‘do’ what these on-screen heroes could.

This is not to say that I fantasised about taking a severe beating at the hands of multiple ‘bad guys’, nor did I like the idea of ultra-violence that would culminate in somebody’s inglorious death. But did I spend endless hours disciplining my body to perform highly technical ‘moves’ like jumping spinning kicks? Yes. Yes I did. Did I strive to emulate the masochistic discipline of so many of the training montages that seemed to be a compulsory feature of Martial Arts movies? Most ardently.

It is unlikely that, during this period of my Martial Arts journey, I could have entertained the idea that I was spellbound by the on-screen performances I so eagerly watched. So enthralled was I by the – sometimes exquisite – performances that I didn’t give any thought to the fact that my well-practiced jumping spinning kicks and other such flamboyant ‘techniques’ were mere imitations of performance art; the outward manifestation of the ideas and dreams of creative choreographers.

On reflection, the relationship between the Martial Arts and performance is an interesting one and is my intended subject for the Note that follows. I hope to be able to give some thought to this interesting relationship that the Martial Arts have with performance art, a relationship that, in my opinion, is quite a tangled one. Beginning with a more general consideration of this relationship, I intend to move on to thinking about the relationship between performance and Karate in particular.


Performing Martial Arts…Stage Karate

So what is meant by this idea of ‘performance’, and how does it relate to the world of the Martial Arts? An initial – and obvious – definition of performance is as an act of presenting a form of entertainment to an audience. In my own anecdotal account of being an easily influenced adolescent, this performance of the Martial Arts is straightforward to recognise: fictional characters dramatized in various fictional scenarios for the entertainment of the audience.

There is also the definition of performance as the action or process of performing a task or function. Under the influence of the screen performances, this is where my adolescent self committed to the process of refining my ‘performance’ of the techniques I wished to emulate. In this instance, of course, the audience that provides evaluation of my performance is not so obvious. Mostly, the audience was me (my performance had to pass the scrutiny of my harshest critic). Occasionally, of course, fortuitous circumstances would enable me to seek admiration from other students in my Karate classes, as I performed some of my techniques (much to the frustration of my sparring partners, no doubt).

My naive adolescent antics and misguided attempts at imitation aside, is there a deeper connection between performance and the Martial Arts disciplines? Indeed, I believe there is. If we can think of performance as the transformation of ideas, emotions and all those other little understood human impulses into outward action, then potentially every gesture is infused with performance, in a basic sense (Benson 2006). And I certainly believe that we can think of the Martial Arts as whole languages of gestures, designed to heighten the human activity of expressing emotions to the point where they are experienced and rendered lucid to the practitioner (and audience); an expression that provides a psychological coping method for the existence of violence, so that a person’s discomposure towards it can be soothed.

Performance of the Martial Arts, in this sense, is an ideal expression that gives creative license to practitioners to explore what may be possible in the face of violence. Although, we shouldn’t think of the expressive gestures of the Martial Arts as only dealing with the threatening and diffuse presence of violence, they also deal symbolically with other fundamental questions of human existence, such as power, the quest for control, and the search for identity (Donohue 2002). Moving beyond the performance of human physical potential, the Martial Arts can also be said to assist practitioners in investing life with meaning and in developing mechanisms for relating to fellow human beings (Donohue 2002).

I think it important for a critical approach that we consider what importance idealistic performance has in the Martial Arts; what role has creative licence had in the formation of style? There is no doubt that style plays an important part in the analysis of performance, but we should remember that it is employed to illuminate substance, that is, the essential meaning of the performance. What substance, or meaning is communicated through style in the Martial Arts? Can we say that there are different levels, or validities of meaning?

For me, these are important questions in attempting to understand the tangled relationship between Martial Arts and performance. To further understand this relationship and to attempt to elucidate the dynamics of substance and style, I will be using Karate as a discussion medium.


Performing Karate…Karate Dance

Karate stands out as an interesting medium through which to explore this relationship between performance and the Martial Arts, not just because it is of particular interest to me, but also because it is often the site of heated debate: regarding the substance or meaning of the central practice of Karate – the Kata – there is much disagreement. Many different claims have been made as to the correct meaning of these – sometimes bizarre looking – forms; claims which have given rise to many different styles of performance. And this is something very important to bear in mind where Karate is concerned, especially for the casual audience: very often, what is performed is an idealistic performance based on assumptions held about the meaning of the Kata. Of course, to the casual audience, assumptions about the self-defence functions of the Kata are easily absorbed and interpreted as correct because they seem to fit with notions of personal combat imprinted on our minds by cinematic or stage performance (refer to my adolescent antics above).

The casual audience witnessing a performance of Karate can, and should be forgiven, however, for being taken in by the spectacle – and enjoying it for what it is – without engaging their critical faculties. And indeed, why would they? In the usual performance of the Kata and their Bunkai a drama is enacted by often very competent artists; a drama that is performed with all the choreography and precision that can be expected from other long-established performance arts.

But what about the performers themselves? Have they also disengaged their critical faculties and become absorbed in performing a spectacle? I would suggest that the influence of performance in Karate is a powerful one, having largely defined how Karate is thought about and promoted (as an effective self-defence method). This influence on Karate is not only to be witnessed in more or less public performances, but has become an integral part of what we could call the culture of Karate.

In an important sense, when we join a Karate club, we become performers of Karate. Any modern Karate club benefits from a diverse membership; people that come to the club from numerous walks of life, with numerous characters and personalities – most, if not all, however, share a proclivity towards membership of a club whose activities are set off from their normal lives. The Karate Dojo is a designated space where club members can come together for a shared purpose, where the right environment can be established for the pursuit of Karate in relative safety. This, of course, bears a great deal of similarity to a performance workshop; where participants adopt the personae of theatrical production and undertake actions that incorporate creative risks in the development of performance (Klens-Bigman 2002).

The Karate Dojo is certainly a place that incorporates creative risk in the development of Karate performance. Most often, where Kata and their bunkai are performed, creative risk is a central feature in striving to demonstrate the validity of empty-handed self-defence interpretations. Although most physical human interactions rely to some degree upon the individual’s concerned taking on a particular role, the ‘traditional’ performance of bunkai is predicated on the assumption of roles (i.e. ‘attacker’ and ‘defender’) for harmonious performance. A carefully choreographed sequence of interactions, with each individual playing their role in the pas de deux, creates a fictional spectacle of violent confrontation.

As with any performance, the outcome of this spectacle of violent confrontation is predetermined. Heroically, the ‘defender’ is always destined to vanquish their assailant and emerge victorious. The visceral fear of violent confrontation is dramatized (and sanitised) for an audience eager to know that such situations can be ‘dealt with’ without suffering harm. Perhaps such idealised representations are necessary – in one sense, this is obviously true otherwise Karate Dojo would be places where severe injuries are routinely inflicted! The problem comes, however, when the performance of self-defence in tidy choreographed sequences is assumed to be representative of ‘reality’. Such an assumption is fraught with difficulty; a performance may be considered as a symbolic representation, but it is most certainly far removed from the nasty, unpredictable and hormone driven reality of violent conflict.

The spellbinding effect of symbolic performance has, in my opinion, dampened the critical faculties of many Karate practitioners. A wide range of bizarre body postures and movements which are routinely incorporated in the performance of Karate are consequently thought of as ‘real’ self-defence techniques. Rarely do practitioners take an objective look at the techniques recorded in Karate kata, instead, they work hard to refine their performance of the techniques and integrate them into highly convoluted – and choreographed – sequences. Indeed, the normal framework of Dojo practice demands that one pays careful attention to such performance (progression ‘through the ranks’ is often determined by the quality of a performance). It also demands that a practitioner play their ‘role’ and not ask awkward questions. Everyone has a role to play in the Dojo, from beginning student to Sensei, roles which are created and maintained using costumes, role playing and ritual (Klens-Bigman 2002).

It seems to me that where Karate is concerned, at least, these elements of performance have played a significant role in the way that the art has been transmitted. An unfortunate culture of nurturing symbolic performance to fuel belief in the self-defence effectiveness of Karate techniques has led to very little in the way of honest questioning of such a premise. Immersed in this culture, Karate performers may well look for ‘truth’ in their actions, as far as this goes, though this will mostly be in the same way that actors check themselves for believability on stage.

The important questions for me seem to be: Has Karate, as it is widely practiced, become about performing the drama of self-defence? Can this performance ever be anything more than a symbolic representation lacking in ‘real’ substance?


Concluding thoughts…Kusanku

During the course of this Note I have attempted to give some thought to the relationship that the Martial Arts have with performance. Beginning more generally, I have mentioned the fundamental role that performance has in the Martial Arts when considered from the perspective of being, in part, the outward manifestation of common human emotions and concerns (such as control and identity) in ritual gesture. From a slightly different perspective, I have also looked at performance as an idealised representation of the drama of human conflict.

Using Karate as a case study, I have sought to further explore the idea of performance as idealised representation and the impact that it can have on the practice of a Martial Art. From my perspective, the art of Karate has suffered significant distortions thanks, in large part, to a preoccupation with performing the heroic drama of self-defence – a drama not based on the genuine substance or meaning of techniques bequeathed by the Kata, but rather fanciful interpretation and cognitive bias.

My parting thought in this Note is to invite the Karate practitioner to try and take a step back from the culture of idealised performance that dominates the thinking of so many, try to take an honest look at the techniques recorded in the antique Kata in all their intricate detail. Can they really be justified as empty-handed self-defence techniques?


Thank you for reading this Note from the Training Hall. Please check back soon as I jot down more Notes…



  • Benson, D (2006) Performance is the thing, printed in Philosophy Now, Issue 57 Apr/May 2016)
  • Donohue, J (2002) Wave People: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination. Published in Combat, Ritual, and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts, edited by David E. Jones
  • Klens-Bigman, D (2002) Toward a Theory of Martial Arts as Performance Art. Published in Combat, Ritual, and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts, edited by David E. Jones
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Challenged Mindset

The dominant mindset…self defence

Imagine – if you will – that a survey could be conducted of all Karate practitioners around the world today. Such a survey could ask many questions, but this particular survey would ask just one simple question: What is the purpose of Karate? Now, you may think it presumptuous of me to suggest that I could predict what answers practitioners all over the world might give to this simple question. However, I don’t think that I would be too far off the mark if I suggested that the majority of responses would, in one way or another, reference the idea of self-defence. Not all together surprising, you may think, as this is how Karate is most often marketed: an effective method of civilian self-defence. This in itself is also not surprising, you may think, because Karate was created as a method of civilian self-defence; or so goes the conventional explanation.

In the Note that follows I intend to give some thought to whether this conventional explanation of Karate’s purpose really ‘holds water’. I do this in full knowledge of the fact that asking questions of such a widely accepted explanation of Karate is treated dismissively by the larger Karate community, but I ask the reader to bear with me, as the collective voice of those who dare to ask the difficult questions is gaining volume and deserves serious consideration.

In thinking about the idea of Karate as a method of civilian self-defence, I have found it useful to describe this as a particular mindset. This term, perhaps, needs a little explanation: In general systems theory, mindset is defined as a set of assumptions or methods, held by a group of people, that is so established that it creates a powerful incentive within the group to continue to accept prior and current behaviours and choices. And this is how I have come to think about the self-defence mindset of Karate: as an established assumption that has been widely accepted by the Karate community and marketed as its raison d’etre. Needless to say, I have come to think that belief in this view of Karate’s purpose involves a leap of faith, rather than an honest consideration of the results of serious and critical research.

As a part of this Note I would also like to briefly consider a different approach to the purpose of Karate, one that allies itself with the view that the body of techniques inherited from China and developed in the RyuKyu Kingdom, that would later become Karate, were utilised for various royal government duties as a means to control society, and not a civilian self-defence (see Quast’s excellent post on Ryu Kyu Bugei for further confirmation). This is an approach that considers Karate to be the heir to historically and culturally appropriate means of effecting civil arrest.


Challenging a mindsetkanei_elbow

To successfully challenge the dominant self-defence mindset of Karate is no easy task, and also one that is made all the more difficult by the powerful incentive to ‘toe the party line’ felt in most Karate organisations. Succumbing to such mental inertia, however, is anathema to the more critical and objective perspective that reveals a noble art of civil arrest, and not a plebeian means of brutalising others.

As should be obvious, the hub around which the civil arrest wheel turns is the source material for all traditional Karate: the antique kata. It is this source material over which the critical and objective eye must be cast, as it is the material that demands a re-think of the self-defence mindset. Doing this has made clear, for example, that the antique kata preserved within – and central to – the Uechi Ryu school (Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseirui) are in fact kata that teach a complete methodology for the use of the Sai in disarming an armed assailant. It is, of course, beyond the scope of this Note to begin to explain these kata in all their intricate detail (for the interested reader I strongly suggest The Great Karate Myth by Nathan Johnson), though it should suffice here to say that the peculiarities of these kata (movement patterns, grips etc) suddenly become easily explainable when a pair of Sai are reintroduced, making strange attempts to apply the techniques empty-handed in self-defence scenarios entirely redundant.

sai uechiBut how does this fit in with a civil arrest tradition? Well, although there may be some in the Karate (and Kobudo) community who believe the Sai to be a quasi-military weapon, this is simply not the case. It is now known that the Sai were a weapon adopted in Okinawa as weapons of civil authority for maintaining palace security and public order by what we might call, in modern parlance, a police force (Dohrenwend 2002). Such a civil authority would have need for non-lethal impact weapons, such as the Sai, when dealing with armed miscreants in the port cities and elsewhere (Dohrenwend 2002). It would have been important, also, that the Sai be utilised in such a way that assailants would not be maimed or killed in the process of being disarmed.

Such a method of wielding the Sai (in a non-lethal way) is embodied perfectly within the above mentioned kata, for example. Punishing strikes with the Sai are never aimed at the head (where there would be most risk of serious injury), instead, strikes are aimed at the hands, arms and shoulders to incapacitate and ensure that a weapon is dropped, and hooking techniques are utilised to trap and subdue limbs.

The astute reader will no doubt be asking themselves at this point what the arresting authority would have done when faced with an unarmed assailant, and this is a very important question. Of course, it has not been claimed that the antique kata record only a method for utilising the Sai; methods of Chin-Na (seizing and grappling techniques) are also recorded, such as with Naihanchin kata, for example (again, I advise referring to The Great Karate Myth for further details). An effective means of seizing and subduing an unarmed assailant, again without causing serious injury, would have been a very important aspect that would underpin a comprehensive civil arrest system (Johnson 2006).

Clearly, techniques for use by a trained professional acting to tackle and resolve issues that come under the civil jurisdiction are very different in their intended outcomes than when the same techniques are erroneously used in scrappy (and ineffectual) self-defence scenarios. Many Karate practitioners, under the influence of the self-defence mindset, persist in their determined efforts to apply civil arrest techniques, which can be given proper form and structure in a kata, to the unstructured and unpredictable arena of self-defence and fisticuffs – for which there is absolutely no need for kata!

Again, context is key…

In this challenge of the self-defence mindset it is very important that we do not lose sight of the cultural and historical context in which the civil arrest techniques, recorded in the antique kata, were intended to be implemented. Very often, this is one of the central issues that Karate-ka of the self-defence persuasion wilfully disregard: the social and cultural conditions under which the RyuKyu civil arrest system was developed no longer exist, and so attempts to apply the techniques recorded within the formal kata of this system to contemporary self-defence situations and ‘street’ violence is, at the very best, highly anachronistic. The same could also be said, of course, should any individual or group believe that the techniques of this system could be utilised in contemporary Western scenarios – particularly by the average part-time hobbyist (clearly, though, the use of the Sai remains redundant). I am in no doubt that individuals selected to perform the duties of upholding the civil authority in the RyuKyu Kingdom were just that: selected. Meaning that not just anybody was suited to this occupation (just as not just anybody can serve in a modern police force), such duties were most likely suited to the physically and mentally robust, but also those committed to the Neo-Confucian social ethic of the time.Shuri_Castle

This, of course, is another important contextual element to consider: the techniques of civil arrest, recorded in the antique kata were legally, morally and socially acceptable to a Neo-Confucian way of thinking; a way of thinking which stressed the maintenance of peace and social order through good conduct, clearly defined patterns of obedience and filial piety (Johnson 2006). In such a social context, civil arrest techniques would likely have been considered to be a (general) long term preventative or ‘treatment’ for social disease, violence or disreputable behaviour; a social disease that would have been considered as indicative of an unwelcome breakdown of ‘Wa’ – (personal) harmony, impinging upon social order (Johnson 2006). From such a view, the encouragement of plebeian fisticuffs, or a violent self-defence system, is simply unacceptable as it does not encourage nobility and virtue.

A civil arrest method, then, could likely have been considered an ‘unfortunate’ necessity that must fulfil its function with a sense of nobility, which is why the techniques recorded in the antique kata refrain from employing brutalising techniques that could maim or kill. Sadly, this consideration has rarely found its way into the self-defence mindset, influenced as it is by various historical myths and literal interpretations of ideas such ‘Ikken Hissatsu’. Also, as a preventative measure, the techniques of civil arrest represent a pro-active approach in their application, meaning that the techniques are most effective when used to de-escalate a violent situation before it gains real momentum. In this way, the arresting authority runs a greatly reduced risk of being overwhelmed by having to be ‘on the defensive’. And this, of course, is another important point missed by those immersed in the self-defence mindset, which insists on a re-active approach to confrontation.

Concluding thoughts…

In this Note I hope to have briefly – but nevertheless clearly – stated that there are considerable problems with the widely held belief that Karate is a civilian self-defence system. Such is the pervasiveness of this belief that I have opted to use the term mindset to describe the degree to which I think it to be an assumption that has generated a strong incentive for Karate-ka all over the world to accept it without question. Incidentally, the continued successful propagation of the self-defence mindset is most likely due to an unhealthy relationship between the drive for commercial gain and paranoia regarding personal safety, more than anything else.

In contrast to this dominant mindset of Karate I have sought to present an understanding of Karate as a body of techniques for the purpose of civil arrest, as it seems evident that the techniques encoded in the formal antique kata of Karate reveal a comprehensive system of sophisticated and noble means to disarm, subdue and arrest a quarrelsome miscreant. Lest there be some who may get carried away at this point, I have also pointed out that it is important to view these civil arrest techniques through the correct contextual lens: they are techniques developed in the ‘Neo-Confucian’ RyuKyu Kingdom, a society that placed great importance in social harmony and a personal sense of propriety. As such, these techniques (most especially the armed Sai techniques) do not easily traverse barriers of time, geography and culture to find application in contemporary Western ‘urban’ scenarios – something that is repeatedly demanded of the same techniques erroneously applied in self-defence contexts.

To my mind, understanding Karate as a system of civil arrest techniques for use in upholding a sound and virtuous social ethic restores to it a nobility that is sadly lacking in much contemporary Karate practice; determined as it is to remain within the self-defence mindset. This is not to say that, relatively speaking, it is not acceptable for individuals to pursue greater proficiency and confidence in methods of self-defence, if this is what they wish to pursue. Rather, the point here is that the techniques which may enable such proficiency and confidence in self-defence cannot be found within formal, structured and antique Karate kata created for a very different purpose.

Thank you for reading this Note from the Training Hall. Be sure to check back soon as I jot down more Notes…



  • Dohrenwend, R. (2002) The Odd East Asian Sai. Published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 11, No.3
  • Johnson, N. (2006) The Great Karate Myth: Unravelling the Mystery of Karate. The Wykeham Press.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment