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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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The Art Of Psuedo-Karate

By Shaun Banfield

Shaun BanfieldOne Friday, I went to a nightclub in the centre of Cardiff. There was this young lad, strutting his stuff, moving around manically, dancing like a crazed zombie. As I stood there quietly watching in the corner, with a somewhat baffled look on my face, I thought to myself, ‘hey, that was a kiba-dachi.’

Of course it wasn’t, for that would have been ridiculous, but it did have all of the necessary technical factors that could have well made it a side straddle stance.

And naturally, it got me thinking. This young lad had entered into a fundamental Karate stance, and he doesn’t even know it, yet if I’d photographed him mid-movement and showed this to the average karate practitioner, they’d be convinced that he’d been practicing karate for years. All because he had a picture perfect technique.

So if a kiba-dachi can be achieved whilst dancing, without thought or intent, what does that say about present day karateka who dedicate their time trying simply to imitate the masters in the books, without thought for the intent of the techniques. 

Karate today is very different from the karate that was first spread by the Japanese Masters. It could even be said that the technical proficiency of today’s karateka is at an all time best.

Why is this?

It isn’t necessarily because we have better karate instructors, because who would argue that the Japanese instructors were not the best – if not through their teaching, indeed they were via the example they set – so why are practitioners today aesthetically better than ever?

It’s because of a shift in attitude; a change in the mental approach to training. Karate isn’t practiced quite so much for Budo these days; instead the practicioners have become ‘athletes’. But through this transition from karate for ‘Budo’, to karate for ‘athleticism’, what has been lost?

Take ura-mawashi-geri for example. The most effective way to perform this kick is by striking the target with the heel of the foot, a harder striking point than the ball of the foot, thus causing increased levels of damage.

Now, I completely understand and advocate the need to train safely, so training both in basic kumite and competition kumite, using the ball of the foot as the striking surface is just common sense.

However, since it’s unsafe to use the heel of the foot during partner work, emphasis should be placed on the Budo way of kicking (heel) during kihon line training, to maintain the Budo spirit. Training solely with the ball of the foot (sport) results in a lack of understanding for the potential of what this technique can do; and through losing this understanding, you are in many ways trivialising the danger these techniques pose. This is not the way of the Martial Spirit.

Don’t get me wrong; I feel karate competition is important, particularly to young karateka, for it breeds the desire to win, making their karate stronger and more determined. My problem comes with those who claim they do ‘Karate’; when in fact what they do is a glorified version of a simple fighting system with the dramatics of a Martial Art that means nothing, for they have no real respect for the fundamental principles of Karate-Do.

Through losing the Budo attitude in your training, you are in many ways reducing our karate to a codeless fighting system, yet it is this code that distinguishes karate as a Martial Art from a simple fighting system like boxing. I see certain competitors who train solely for competition, even sometimes excluding kata training to dedicate more time to becoming better fighters. They then enter upon the tatami and bow, as if they believe in the Martial Spirit. This becomes bowing for bowing sake, creating a form of psuedo-karate. Allowing them to pick and choose which elements of the Martial Art they use, means the Martial Spirit becomes lost.

I love watching competitions. I love to see kata being performed so passionately that the karateka is so committed to the moment that he is completely mentally and physically exhausted. I love to see a fighter whose timing is so precise that his opponent cannot defend. This is very inspiring to me.

Whether it’s because of competition, or because of any other factor, karate training has become quite concerned with the aesthetic, or how the karate looks.

I am a firm believer that proper, efficient technique can achieve a more destructive result than simple brute force, so I appreciate the need to achieve true technical proficiency.

For example, I feel it very important to maintain good posture throughout a technique in order to allow for a successful transference of power, but also to maintain stability, and to control your centre of balance.

Shaun BanfieldWhen you perform kiba-dachi, you’re taught to keep the feet pointing forward, not turned out like in shiko-dachi, in order to create an increased tightening around the ankles, which is important for stability and rooting. However, when you’re instructed to point the feet forward, only because that’s what the referee is looking for, this can lead to a dangerous belittling of the fundamentals of Karate.

I truly believe that making your karate as perfect as physically possible should be the goal of every karateka, but to train, just to look perfect and appear effective, means that when put to the test, your karate may be useless.

By being consumed with how your karate ‘looks’, leads to ignorance of how the karate ‘feels’. 

Being perfect, not looking perfect should be the emphasis. For although both will arrive at the same result, which is ‘perfect focus’ in appearance, this does not mean the techniques are of equal value. It’s the phases the technique experiences, and the true attitude that it is performed with that determines the worth of the technique and indeed of the karateka. Despite appearing the same in the end, it’s the attitude that makes them ‘perfect’. Just looking perfect can lead to overconfidence, and it’s within kumite that the karateka who just ‘looks perfect’ will learn that there is more to karate than aesthetics.

I was at a competition quite recently, and I was astonished by the way many perform the uchi-uke, oi-tsuki sequence in the kata Jion. Granted, once they had performed the block, their arm was in the accurate position, (elbow at the perfect height, not too close/ not too far away from the body etc.) but when I studied them closely, I could see the karate-ka had cut corners and not followed the correct course the block needs to travel in order to be effective. Resultantly, through cutting corners, this competitor had blocked lightening speed, but at the end of the day, what can that block really do, apart from look like a block upon focus, for it certainly wouldn’t block any kind of attack.

What is the value of a useless technique? Apparently quite a lot, since these competitors win, making a mockery of the competition rules, the kata, and indeed karate itself.

The threat posed is that those competitors, who had followed the correct route, blocking correctly, although a little slower, will now compromise their correct karate in order to be able to win. This will therefore breed a generation of corner-cutters.

To remedy this threat, I was so tempted to run onto the tatami and launch an oi-tsuki to one of their uchi-uke, (a block that should be more than capable of dealing with this attack) as a means of highlighting that what we all too often witness as ‘winning’ karate is in fact is a fake, and therefore useless.

This issue regarding the aesthetic of karate makes us question why we bother going to the dojo to train. Logically, we do karate above all else, to gain the skills to defend ourselves, but if everyone is overtly concerned with how their karate looks, rather than how well it works, then is Karate today still a Martial Art?

The only way to preserve the true heritage of Karate-Do is through the instructors in the clubs, and the way they teach their students. Stress needs to be placed not just on getting the hip in the correct place, or ensuring your head is looking in the correct direction but on why these factors are so important. These instructors need to ensure that the students they produce are performing their karate with the correct attitude. I also feel competitions have a responsibility to ensure winners are those who truly respect the technical and philosophical principles of Karate-Do.

We live in an age where aesthetics are considered as important as effectiveness. We have all, at some stage, looked to our Japanese Instructors to see how the karate should be performed, since they left us such an impressive imprint of what karate represents.

To become better karateka, we need to train hard. We need to focus on what is important, and approach our training with the utmost respect and correct attitude. Cutting corners and being unrealistically dramatic in our karate performances will certainly win us trophies - and acclaim - but at the end of the day, if your karate is not real, if it’s just for show, then those trophies and certificates will just get dusty. Without the correct karate attitude, it has all been for nothing.

Make your karate perfect, but not just in appearances.

Uchi-Uke performed by Shaun BanfieldUchi-Uke performed by Shaun BanfieldUchi-Uke performed by Shaun Banfield