In historical terms, the martial art of Karate was most influenced by the chinese fist arts, although the origins of Karate can be traced back to the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. which included an event called the ‘Pankration’, a form of unarmed combat involving punching, kicking and throwing.
Karate-do as we know it today follows that art of unarmed combat developed on the island of Okinawa, which was invaded by the Japanese in the early part of the 17th Century. The invasion included a ban on all weapons, and consequently the islanders, learning unarmed combat techniques from Chinese experts on the island, developed the unique Okinawan Karate – the art of training the hands and feet as lethal weapons. Hence the original meaning of Karate was ‘Tode’ or ‘China Hand’.
The island was policed by Samurai, warriors skilled in the sword who wore virtually impenetrable bamboo armour, and, as the islanders were forbidden to carry weapons, a kick or punch had to be effective enough to penetrate this armour and disable the warrior.
In 1921, Master Gichin Funakoshi introduced Karate to Japan where the art was modified and improved, and it developed as a martial, lethal art for practical fighting. The meaning of Karate then was changed to ‘Empty Hand’, i.e. ‘Kara’ – empty and ‘Te’ – hand, indcating the ability to defend without the use of weapons.
To inflict damage on an opponent with a single punch or kick has been the objective of this ancient Okinawan martial art, however, great emphasis has also been placed on the spiritual side of the art.
Training means the training of body and spirit and the striving for the spirit of humility. Becoming a true follower of Karate-do is possible only when one strives for perfection in these two aspects, the one spiritual, the other physical. The fundamental techniques of Karate have been developed and perfected through long years of study and practice, but the effective use of these techniques must include an understanding and acceptance of this spiritual aspect.
Otsuka developed the particular style of Karate – Wado-Ryu
The last 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of Karate-do throughout the world, even to the extent that Karate may be featured in the Olympic Games of 2020. While some may see this as a welcome development, others may regard it as an indication of how, increasingly, Karate is seen more as a sport than a pure oriental martial art.
The very essence of Karate is expressed in Kata (form) which is a series of preset defensive and counter attacking movements against a number of imagined opponents, and requires many years of study to perfectly understand and execute. From the study of Kata one can see how Karate evolved and developed as an art of self-defense.
There are many Karate Katas, all of which start from a defensive movement. This demonstrates that every move in Karate is developed out of the need for self-defense against attack. The practice of Kata is an integral part of training for Karate organisations within the traditional mould.
Some Karate organisations today emphasize the winning of competitions to the extent that little or no emphasis is placed on the basic techniques, or on the practice of Kata, likewise such organisations do not stress the importance of courtesy, etiquette, and respect, all essential features of Karate-Do training. While it is not undesirable for Karate organisations to participate in competition Kumite (free sparring), the traditional aspects of the art should assume prime importance, and the winning of competitions should not be the sole objective of the organisation.
The beginner starts off by mastering the basic techniques, punches, kicks, and blocks, without an opponent so that he can focus all his mental and physical effort on the performance of his own technique without fear of counter attack – although an opponent is always present whether imagined, as in basics, or real, as in sparring. Having gained a reasonable level of proficiency in the basic techniques, the student then progresses to Sanbon Gumite (pre-arranged sparring) in order to learn distance, balance, and zanchin(awareness).
Having reached a degree of proficiency in Sanbon Gumite the student will then progress to more advanced types of pre arranged sparring, such as Ohyo gumite and Kihon gumite where they will learn the importance of timing, and the basic principle of Wado-Kai Karate, the use of the minimum amount of effort for maximum effect!
While perfecting these aspects of his training, the student will continue to practice basic techniques, plus they will be learning Kata (preset form). The practice of Kata is perhaps the one element of training which separates traditional and sport martial arts. The practice of Kata embodies all the principles and ideals of traditional Karate. Each Kata requires different types of muscle co-ordination, gentle and strong movements, fast and slow movements, varying degrees of power, pivoting, jumping, bending, kicks, punches, blocks, pushing and pulling all done with complete concentration and perfect balance. Though the practice of Kata alone does not render a martial art ‘traditional’, some schools are content to lower Kata to the role of exercise, a varied collection of empty movements devoid of any power or focus.
In short, Karate as a sport is a hobby or pastime, traditional Karate-Do is a way of life!