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Shiai and Budo- No Contradiction 

After 50 years since the establishment of karate in the UK, and the best part of a century since its formal adoption as a branch of Japanese budo, I thought the “traditional vs competition” debate had played its course. Apparently though, according to many web forums (and presumably then many post-dojo bar-room pontificators) the question is still very much to the fore of many a karateka’s consciousness. When one of my students recently broached the subject with me, noting, “one of my mates told me that competition is not proper karate” I felt the urge to get on paper my own passionately-held views on the subject.

Key to this debate then is an agreement on – or at least recognition of – the various definitions of “traditional karate”. Clearly this precise definition is one of the things that, in the rich tapestry that is karate, ensure that, as economic theories to economists, there are as many definitions of karate as there are karateka. Nevertheless, I think I can attempt to craft a definition with which most of the people, most of the time, will not be desperately unhappy. Here goes: “(Traditional) karate-do is a system, with probable origins in China and an evolution through Okinawa to Japan and beyond, that, through the practice of fighting skills, aims to develop in the practitioner not only the ability to respond effectively in a conflict, but also, via a regimen of physical and technical demands, some form of character improvement, and benefits in health and well-being.” There! I don’t think many could take exception to that. Like all truths though, the differences of opinion lie in the degree to which each of these elements is given prominence. Given that I have not conferred any weight on any of these factors, I trust you will bear with me and accept my general, middle-of-the-road definition.

So, whether you follow Mabuni, Egami, Ohtsuka, Oyama, Miyagi (or Presley, for that matter) you must agree that karate has to provide a standard of behaviour, a level of technical competence, a degree of “street effectiveness” and a health and fitness regimen worthy of your ideals. (Or your interpretation of your – probably deceased – leader’s ideals; noting, for example, that such diverse groups as the KDS and the JKA believe they are following Funakoshi’s wishes, and the IOGKF and the JKF Gojukai carry the same such beliefs vis a vis Miyagi Chojun).

It is my contention, then, that sport is not only relevant in such a system, but further it is an essential element of every serious karateka’s training regimen. To support this claim I will first of all examine the role of sport in general in society. I will then explore the features of competitive karate that positively contribute to the furtherance of the aforementioned budo ideals. Finally I will examine the training of those who choose not to embrace sport and show why they are not getting the best from their karate, whatever their particular interpretation of the art.                

In Western society it has long been held that sport has a positive contribution to give to development of the individual and society. The assertion attributed to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, that the battle of Waterloo was won on “the playing fields of Eton” is well known. Participation in sport encourages teamwork and cooperation. The setting of goals, and striving to attain them, builds desirable character traits such as motivation, self-discipline and diligence. These traits are surely consistent with the aims of budo. Indeed the late Geof Gleeson, judoka and writer, went further. Having won a scholarship to the Kodokan, and later to go on to teach Japanese, Gleeson was well placed to observe that whilst there is no direct translation into Japanese of the English “sport” (the Japanese term expressed in Romaji is “supooto”), Kano Jigoro’s invention, which he named “Judo”, sought to embody those desirable characteristics of sport in his budo. So the practice of sport is not only consistent with the practice of budo but in many respects the two are one and the same.

Already then I have argued that socio-psychological elements of budo and sport are aligned, but to satisfy many of my detractors this is not enough. Martial arts practice, they will argue, is more serious than “mere” recreation. A credible karate training programme requires shugyo, “austerity training”. Such training requires the devotee to subject himself (or herself) to harsh demands upon the mind and body in order to forge a stronger individual. The training should mimic as closely as possible the conditions of real combat in order to maximise the effectiveness of the skills being trained.

Sport undoubtedly provides some of these conditions. Anyone who has trained for an athletic event can testify that the training requires a perseverance and commitment that few who have not subjected themselves to such a test can fully appreciate. Such training and commitment requires a dedication that cannot be assuaged by personal, family or professional obligations. This mindset is exactly analogous to that of the dedicated budoka.

One of the characteristic features of traditional karate training is the constant setting and revision of goals; for example passing the yellow belt grading then striving for the next kyu rank. Or at a higher level, for example learning the sequence of moves of a kata, and then progressing to understanding and applying the principles of the form. Competition surely is consistent with these goals. Whether you are a regional champion striving to step on the podium at national level, a no hoper simply hoping to score one point before being eliminated in the first round, or an up-and-coming regional athlete seeking to play at world (or Olympic) level, the extra effort required both in the training and preparation, and in the competition itself is as surely as the hundredth twist of the chi-ishi a test of the mental and physical resolve of the budoka.

Purists may argue that the imposition of rules upon a conflict, such as those deployed in a sporting contest, waters down the conditions to such a degree as to make them irrelevant in a “real fight”. On the contrary, many of the conditions found in contest can only be otherwise experienced in a genuine fight. Any serious competition, even under the lightest of contact rules, presents the participant with the “fight-flight” adrenaline kick that accurately mimics a life-or-death confrontation. The ability to respond well to this level of heightened of awareness is surely tested as well in the shiaijo as anywhere. In addition to the general endocrine-driven buzz of any sporting encounter, a kumite competition faces one with an opponent similarly pumped-up with fear/aggression. Whether it be fear of being hurt or hurting your opponent, fear of being hit, or simply fear of losing, this mix of emotions cannot be adequately experienced in most dojo. As a rule your regular club kumite partner is a friend or colleague, and their style is well known to you. Even in the most earnest of dojo sparring bouts, there is always an element of the familiar, a comfort that is not encountered in an open match. Detractors will argue no doubt that even the most extreme forms of cage-wrestling/MMA provide a falsely “safe” environment that does not realistically model a real fight. Nevertheless, there are enough of the conditions of combat present in a match to introduce one aspect of the austerity of battle to a training regimen. Another argument against competition is that the limited rules can allow basic technical errors to creep into training. For example, Kyokushin knockdown forbids punches to the head, so combatants are tempted to guard against head kicks with high forearms, but typically an open ribcage. WKF-style kumite rules forbid groin kicks, so long, wide stances are adopted. WKA semi-contact favours the fast over the powerful, so some loss in penetrative power of blows is experienced. These are all fair arguments, but what I advocate is that shiai be used as a part of a training regimen, not the be-all and end-all. Indeed I would go further, and encourage the karateka / budoka to enter tournaments under a variety of rules; not necessarily with the intention of winning – indeed the most talented all-round karateka is unlikely to prevail under a specified set of rules against a seasoned specialist – rather as a test of one’s skills under a variety of conditions against a variety of opponents. Forget also the argument that limited-contact rules encourage bad self-defence practices as the incentive to protect against weak blows is diminished. Even the most skilled points fighters, in the heat of the moment can lose a little control and an ill-timed kick or punch result in serious injury or knock-out. Woe betide any sports kumite exponent who fails to adequately protect himself or herself. Forget, too the notion that “training to miss” will lead to the conditioned pulling of punches when it kicks off in the chippy. Former WKF (limited or no facial contact) world champion Leon Walters fares well enough under K1 rules, and his erstwhile colleague Paul Newby has an unbeaten record in his chosen pro-boxing. I recall too reading an interview with England coach Ticky Donovan where he stated that he would be happy to rely on any of his athletes if things got sticky in the street.

As the proliferation of “kyusho jutsu”, “hidden techniques”, pressure points application and the like grows in karate schools it is increasingly common to hear a teacher declare; “In my dojo we don’t compete, as what we do is potentially lethal”. This may be true, but often these declarations come from corpulent, wheezing Xth dans who wouldn’t know a fight if it (literally) jumped up and bit them. Technically, their techniques may be potentially lethal or debilitating, but realistically if they have not been tested against a non-compliant aggressor in a violent, chaotic situation their claims carry little credibility. Such practitioners not only lack the real test of their techniques in the burning cauldron of battle, but equally importantly they lack the practical skill to apply these techniques when it matters. Added to this they often lack the fitness that a serious athlete gains from training for the next regional championships, and a failure to apply their favourite locking technique after about 30 seconds can leave them gasping for breath while their younger, fitter opponent pushes them to the ground with a little finger!

Another significant group whose karate training is woefully lacking is the “Kata Traditionalists”. They too insist that the budo ideals of karate rise above the need to brawl, and that they can get all they need in terms of character building, well-being and fighting effectiveness from diligent repetition of kata and fundamental techniques. True again that many important elements of karate, such as power generation, balance & mobility, and an arsenal of debilitating techniques can be found in kata, but without an opponent to fight back, or a bag to hit, their practice is so much “dry land swimming” and can actually encourage bad habits as function gives way to form, or create the illusion of power by, for example, relying on the “snap“ of the uniform for feedback.

So as I have already hinted many of the traditional dojo disciplines do indeed play a valuable part in the development of good karate, but without the introduction of some form of robust resistance cannot give the rounded experience that the practitioner needs. Indeed sport may be the only acceptable solution in the context of civilised, western society.

©Martyn Skipper April 2008