Sport Karate: “Meimoku no Bugei”

By Jesse | 25 Comments

Okay, so yesterday I was at this competition, right.

I’m standing there, waiting for the thing to start, when I’m suddenly interrupted by a loud machine-like sound to my left. It’s hard to describe, but it was sort of like this deep, throaty stutter, like the sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

So, curious as I am, I look to my left, and - lo and behold - I see a fellow competitor warming up. He’s doing the spinning move from kata Seipai, where you slap your opponent in the groin, you know? Except his slap is more like a gentle touch. His spin is really fast though. And his mechanic stutter is really loud.

That’s tournament kata in a nutshell.

Emphasis on the totally “wrong” things.

I mean, excuse my French, but what he did was just pathetic. That’s the kindest way I can put it. I was literally standing there, watching him as he repeated his movement over and over again, and I was flabbergasted. Never in his life would he elicit the pain withdrawal reflex (PWR) that the movement in qustion is intended to draw (a slap in the groin makes you bend over, right?), making the rest of the techniques work like intended.

So, it seems something has been lost.

And not only that, but he was actually cheating! Everybody was! Well, not really cheating, but compensating for stuff by fluffing up other stuff. Sounds weird, I know, but let me explain.

This is some of the criteria that the World Karate Federation (WKF) uses when judging a kata performance. You might have seen it before.

Have a look:

  • The kata must be performed with competence and must demonstrate a clear understanding of the principles it contains.
  • The kata performance must have demonstrated correct focus of attention, use of power, good balance and proper breathing.
  • Consistency and correctness of stances.
  • Correct weight distribution according to the kihon being demonstrated.
  • Smooth and even transition (center remaining “weighted down”) between stances.
  • Correct tension in stance.
  • Feet edges firmly on floor.
  • Accuracy in techniques.
  • Correct and consistent kihon with the style being demonstrated.
  • Correct tension, focus, kime.
  • Show proper understanding of the kata bunkai.
  • Contrast in tension, breathing and movement.
  • An understanding of those techniques being demonstrated.
  • A realistic, rather than “theatrical ” demonstration of the Kata meaning.

However…

Just like communism, jet-packs and the spork, these criteria sound really good in theory. That is, until you one day realize that the spork actually makes your mouth bleed, the jet-pack burns your legs off, and communism… well, let’s not go there.

Almost none of these criteria are followed. It’s all a hoax. A bluff.

We have been fooled.

There is only one rule.

It’s called speed.

You see, 90% of the above criteria are often completely ignored and/or misunderstood by today’s judges, because quite frankly most of them have never trained enough Karate themselves to even know the difference between a zenkutsu-dachi and a moto-dachi! They don’t know “correct tension, focus, kime”. They don’t know “proper understanding of the kata bunkai”. And they have absolutely no idea about the “correct tension in stance” and many other of the above criteria (and neither have you or I) because it’s impossible to see!

And here is the keyword.

Seeing.

A kata competition can never be anything else than a visual contest. Unless the judges actually walk around and feel the punches and kicks, feel the correct muscles working etc… Kind of like old-style Karate training was done, without a gi.

But we can’t be having that. A judge can only go by what he sees. Which is basically speed. Power or strength is hard to see, unless you know what to look for. So 90% of the above criteria are just bunched together and tossed in some kind of robotic theatrical pseudo-karate stew.

Let me show you what else that stew contains.

Here’s the top 5 ways to “cheat” in a Kata competition: (okay, not really cheating, just… you know)

1. Have an absurdly long belt.

Look at this picture I took at a demonstration in Okinawa in 2008. This is a guy from the Danish national kata team. I have not edited the photo.

Now, don’t tell me that doesn’t look wrong. Bizarre, even. He isn’t alone though; all around the world belts are growing longer and longer, because let’s face it - your stances look deeper when your belt almost touches the floor. That’s the reason.

And, as a bonus, they flap around more when they are longer, giving you a bigger chance of “accidentally” slapping it against your thigh or chest (which makes for a terrific Hollywood-like sound).

Like the French say: Pathetique.

2. Have a ridiculously big gi.

Now, I was going to use another example from the Danish national team (they’re doing everything “right” when it comes to Sport Karate by the way), but World Champion Luca Valdesi will do for now, I guess.

Though his gi is small compared to some other people…

So why have such a big tent-like gi then? To hide something?

Yes.

A big gi effectively hides anything that goes under the title of “Important Details”, which means that you can basically have every joint in your body improperly aligned (ie. not behind the line of power transmission) and still get away with it because, again, if it can’t be seen it can’t be judged.

Oh, and a long, big gi makes your stances seem even wider and deeper.

3. Starch your gi.

What has potatos, pasta, rice and a tournament Karate gi in common?

They all contain a helluva lot of starch.

Of course this is a well-kept secret in Sport Karate circles, so I’m not really supposed to say this. But in order to improve the show-effect of executing kicks and punches with an audible “snap”, you can actually starch the gi.

Just take your pick, throw it in the washing machine and watch the magic unfold.

In particular the ends of the sleeves from the elbow down and the pants from the knee down are popular. You’ll be one noisy competitor in no time, and suddenly you’ll not only look better, but also sound better!

Snap!

4. Work those barks!

So, while I’m arguing that a kata competition can never be based on anything other than the judges visual input, that’s not the whole truth. Nope. As I just noted, having a big snap in you techniques also helps, which means that the judges also hear you, and not only see you.

In other words, visual and AUDITORY.

This has led to what I’d like to term the “grunt cult”.

Promise me to never become a member of it.

I mean, it’s okay (even encouraged) to exhale as you do a technique. I have no problem with that. Boxers do that. MMA people do that. Tennis players do that. But when the exhalation is substituted with a loud grunt (which doesn’t serve a sound [pun!] combative purpose), then something is definitely wrong.

Actually, somebody once told me a long time ago that this excessive grunting started in Spain somewhere, by some kata team, but maybe that’s just rumors…

Anyhow, this is how it’s supposed to (not?) sound:

5. Forget technique.

Last but not least, if you want to be successful in Sport Karate, then you will have to drastically modify your normal Karate technique. In short, you’ll have to basically substitute power and strength (which can’t be seen) with speed (which can be seen).

In the example of a regular punch; we don’t need to use our hips or legs as much (yay, save energy!) and we can generate basically all power we need (not that much anyway…) from our shoulders alone. Since we don’t need maximum explosive power anymore, we can take the fastest route instead and disconnect our punch from the rest of our body. This means that the punch starts from the shoulders. It simply goes faster than if you were to generate speed and power the proper (longer) way.

However, that’s not enough.

To make it look like this “power” (speed) actually has potential confrontation-ending effect (we need to show that we “understand the techniques”, as the criteria tells us, remember?), the competitor simply adds some extra hip twists which are completely disconnected from the actual punch that it they’re supposed to aid. This extra hip twist serves no real combative purpose of course, just like the rest of these points I’m bringing up. It’s like, imagine a two-wheeled wheelbarrow where the two wheels spin in opposite directions.

They don’t help each other.

But they both move.

So to somebody who doesn’t understand a wheelbarrow, it looks perfectly correct (they’re moving, after all!).

It serves only to please either the auditory or visual sense(s) of the judge.

Like we’ve already concluded earlier…

Okay, that’s enough. Let’s stop here. I also have some other points, like the excessive use of slow pauses, treating different kata like Pokémon trading cards (gotta catch ‘em all!) etc, but that’s for another time.

As you’ve noticed, since judges only rely on their visual and auditory senses (along with their often limited knowledge of what they’re supposed to search for in the first place), these “cheats” all work very well. Not on all judges, but many.

In fact, they’re used all the time.

And why shouldn’t they?

It seems to me that Karate tournaments are almost a manifestation of what Karate legend Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura warned us of in his 1882 “Seven Precepts of Bu”, where he classifies three kinds of “Bu” (a term denoting martial arts in general).

Sport Karate clearly fits in with his second classification which he titles: “Meimoku no bugei”:

Meimoku no bugei, (“nominal styles”) are of purely physical form, which aim only at winning. Without virtue, participants are known to be argumentative, often harm others or even themselves, and occasionally bring shame to their parents, brothers, and family members.

He later goes on, saying that we don’t actually need “meimoku no bugei” (Sport Karate?), and that it will never help us find the Way. He also compares it to some literary study, saying it only “captures a shallow understanding” and “cannot be considered a complete study”.

However, Matsumura then seems to feel some guilt, and promptly ends his essay with:

“I may appear somewhat unsympathetic, but my conviction lies strongly in the principles of “budo no bugei [which he considers the true and genuine method of Bu]“. If you embrace my words as I have divulged to you, leaving no secrets and nothing left hiding in my mind, you will find the Way.”

So what’s the conclusion of this post?

Are we doomed?

Well, Zhou Enlai, China’s legendary former prime minister (1949-1976) was once asked about the significance of the French Revolution (in 1789). His answer was: “It’s too early for us to tell.”

So, what significance will sport Karate have in the grand evolutionary scheme of Karate as a whole (as an art)?

Maybe it’s simply too early to tell.

Let’s just pray it’s not too late.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

25 Comments

  1. Diego Romero

    September 21, 2010 at 5:57 am

    good point about sport karate: it widens the divide between, well, sport karate (not competition. sport. there are still some decent competitions out there), and those of us with a morbid fascination with brutalizing our fellow humans, and drives us to be as distant as possible from the sporty guys, and be even better in our obsession with beating people up. :D

  2. jamonco

    September 21, 2010 at 6:53 am

    What, then, is real kime? I ask you in the highest manner, no online feuds or nothing.

    Oss!

    • Jesse

      September 21, 2010 at 3:14 pm

      Hi jamonco,

      I wrote about it earlier this year, have a look: http://www.karatebyjesse.com/?p=4787

      /Jesse

    • Fraser

      September 24, 2010 at 3:49 pm

      I think that it is the difference between a nasty bruise and a broken bone. Like Newton’s Cradle wnen the ball hits one end and transfers the energy to the ball at he other end and stops?

  3. Chris | Martial Development

    September 21, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Yes, you make some good points, and this can be seen not only in Karate tournaments, but also in YouTube demonstrations of many different styles.

  4. Jozef Chocholá?ek

    September 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Well, Jesse-san, your observations are quite accurate, although I know some (some!) kata judges that are real experts. But even with all judges being 100% qualified kata and bunkai experts -- until it’s not measured in seconds, meters or kilograms, is’t still just figure-skating.

  5. Szilard

    September 21, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Tournaments are directly contradicting the spirit of Dojdo Kun. WKF and JKF, just as any other big bureaucratic organisation, can make a real mess. I wish there was some kind of Dilbert like cartoon series about it drawing attention to the problem.
    On a side note, it seems their web page:
    http://www.karatedo.co.jp/jkf/jkf-eng/e_what.htm
    is not completely clear on if it should be called JFK or JKF.

    • Jesse

      September 21, 2010 at 10:21 pm

      Haha! Hilarious!

      And good idea about the Dilberg cartoon… ;)

      • Leo

        September 24, 2010 at 8:43 pm

        “The last lesson”

        Dôbert: What is this? Are they trying to catch flies from each other’s nose?

        Tengbert: Don’t be cocky! You wouldn’t survive an encounter.

        Dôbert: Would I die of laughter?

        Tengbert: Your lungs won’t bear their show, brat! Look at their footw- OH SNAP!

  6. Fraser

    September 22, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    I used to run marthons and the shoes cost a lot. I used to despise posers who had these shoes and didn’t run. Now thanks to thes posers running shoes are cheaper and I have to thank them for this.

    When I started karate it was in nasty smelly halls in the side of town you didn’t want to be at night. Now thanks to sport karate I can rent halls on the nice of town. If some ask for lessons you can send them down the road as there always someone offering lessons so I no longer feel guilty.

    These events seem great social events and if they are happy I am happy for them. Winners seem most happy everyone else complains about the rules such is life..

  7. SKCMiami

    September 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    We all need to know the difference between sport and reality. I think Sport Karate is beautiful and has introduced millions to our sometimes whacked out world. It’s like the WWE and UFC we all know what’s real and what’s fake.

  8. Karate South Africa

    September 22, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Karate is the Japanese flavor of the martial arts.

    • Matt

      September 23, 2010 at 9:47 pm

      Not really. Karate has been popularized through Japanese influence and indoctrination, but will always be the Okinawan contribution to martial arts.

      • BF

        September 24, 2010 at 10:03 am

        Matt, the source is definitely Okinawa, but at least when it comes to Shotokan it looks like that at least there the Japanese had quite some influence on the development of the style. At least that’s what Taji Kase said ()

        So the Japanese, especially Yoshitaka Funakoshi took many kendo (sword) movements and tactics and blended
        this with the Okinawan hand and foot techniques to make what we know as Shotokan Karate.

        NB: This is not meant to be any style-bashing. I practise Shotokan myself (on beginner’s level :-))

        Rgs

        • Fraser

          September 24, 2010 at 2:37 pm

          I thought Y. Funakoshi was G. Funakoshi’s son. In GF autobiography it says his wife remainded in Okinawa so that would not make YF Japanese. They have Kendo, Judo,Aikido, Ju- Jitsu seems they can’t let this one go. The also made a motorcycle that looks identical to a Norton A10.Rebranding I guess…

          • BF

            September 24, 2010 at 3:52 pm

            Yes, Yoshitaka was the son of Gichin Funakoshi. I guess the message here is that Yoshitaka made a lot of adaptations to what has been previously taught by his father, and he may have very well been influenced by Japanese arts. Especially since Yoshitaka practised Kendo in Tokio (at least that’s what the English Wikipedia claims).

            It is also claimed that Yoshitaka tought Azato’s style, while his fahter previously taught Itozu’s style. So this may also be an explanation for the evolution Shotokan underwent once Yoshitaka became responsible for the training.

            Anyway, no matter what in the end is responsible for this, at least it seems to be sure that there was a big difference between what the two Funakoshis taught. To quote Taji Kase again:

            Back in 1981, for example, Kase had told me that when Masatoshi Nakayama came back to Japan after the war he saw the younger students practising yoko geri, mawashi geri and so on, and said “That’s not Shotokan karate!”

            Rgds

          • BF

            September 24, 2010 at 3:54 pm

            There’s a wrong link in my post from 3:52pm: Kase’s statement can be found at http://www.kaseha.fi/english/kase-sensei-speaks

            Rgds

          • Fraser

            September 24, 2010 at 5:35 pm

            Hi BF

            Thanks for the link it nice to bring the stories up todate. Read most of my stuff from books and have not made the most of the internet as it was not around when I started.Thanks again

  9. jesús espiga

    October 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Kata wasn´t made for competition !

    • IS

      October 28, 2010 at 5:32 pm

      running and jumping wasn’t made for competition!
      fighting wasn’t made for competition!
      skiing wasn’t made for competition!

  10. Virtual Sensei

    November 4, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Jesse,
    great article… I agree with your observations… you analysed the current situation of sport Kata very well. In my training i often deal with the problem: “This is the traditional (and real) way of performing this Katà, but judges probably prefer that other way. What should i do?”.
    I think that traditional and sport karate are two worlds that must coexist, each one with his features (sometimes pathetic as you said). Sport karate advantages speed and aesthetic, while traditional karate prefers efficacy, in despite of the appearance of the motion.
    However, if we want to evaluate the efficacy of both… i have the right instrument :-P

    • Jesse

      November 4, 2010 at 11:17 pm

      Wow… That is incredible! I hope Virtual Sensei does well, it is a superb initiative! Really brings Karate into the 21 century!

      One day I will be in that suit in your laboratory, believe me! :D

  11. Virtual Sensei

    November 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Jesse,
    i’m really happy that you visited my website and appreciated my project. I’ve just discovered your blog and i think it is really AMAZING!! And your youtube channel shows always the most recent and interesting videos about Sport Karate: your work is unbelievable!!
    I really hope that you “will be in that suit”, as soon as possible!! Your vast knowledge could give a great contribution to this project and to Karate in general.
    We share the passion for this discipline (as i learned from your “about” page), so why not to collaborate? In the meanwhile, i’ve added your homepage to my blogroll ;-).

    Alessandro Timmi

  12. sotao

    February 20, 2011 at 3:49 am

    oss, i’m just a rookie in karate-do. in my opinion there’s only two realities about it today :
    1. Karate sport is builted from original(I don’t like use “traditional” phrase) Karate-do. Many of bushido codes are lost/leaved, but in the opposite side it make an amazing influences to Karate-do ownself and the practitioners in the world.
    2. So, it’s happen at least more than 50 years in all part of the world. It’s meaning selected by nature & destiny, if we like it support it totally as we could.
    If you don’t like to some things fight it in the right way as the law said. If you do these I believe you are true Karateka that applying Bushido ……..

  13. warrioress

    August 12, 2011 at 1:03 am

    Painfully true Jesse. Very painfully true :(

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