Karate & The Application of Knowledge

Yesterday I arrived safe and sound in the birthplace of Karate Okinawa.

It’s funny that I’ve never noticed it before, but the first thing that greets you when you step off the plane is row after row of beautiful flowers.

Purple orchids, to be exact.

I mean, in what other grey, dull, airport do you get that? Nowhere, as far as I know. And I think I’ve been to quite many airports. They’re mostly grey and dull.

Actually, even the people you accidentally bump into here are nice. And I mean really nice. For those of you who don’t know what it’s like bumping into somebody in Japan, you really need to come here just to try it. You will literally be showered with excuses and apologies, bowed to a couple of times, and even patted on the shoulder. And this is even if you clearly bump into somebody on purpose, kicking them on their shin at the same time, making them drop all their belongings into a big nasty puddle of mud. You can probably do all of the above, and then laugh loudly at the “poor sucker”, and still not be insulted or yelled at!

Only apologized to, and bowed to.

It’s crazy.

Compare that to some other countries where you can easily get beaten up at the drop of a dime just for looking at people “the wrong way”!

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that all Japanese/Okinawan people are super friendly, peace loving and helpful. All of the time. 24/7/365. And naturally there’s a dozen different theories to exactly why this is the case; ranging from “they needed to cooperate and maintain harmony to build their communities based on rice harvest in ye old days” to “it’s in their DNA”, and everything in between.

But… are they really that nice and cooperative all the time? Everyone? It sounds like an urban myth, right?

Of course they aren’t.

It’s true most of the time though.

Compare it to the statement heard in some places that “almost all terrorists are Muslims”. Maybe you sometimes tend to say it yourself? Perhaps it’s true, I don’t know. But a serious problem arises when we confuse it with the statement “almost all Muslims are terrorists”, (which is made very clear in The Black Swan by  N. Nicholas Taleb, the book I read on the flight).

Sounds quite alike, right?

It’s not.

Assume that the first statement is true, that 99% of all terrorists are Muslims. This would mean that only about .001% of actual Muslims are terrorists, since there are more than one billion Muslims and, say ten thousand real, dangerous, terrorists out there. The interesting thing here is that the logical difference between the two statements seems very narrow to us, even though it is quite vast in reality.

In other words, our brains don’t seem to be made for these kinds of complicated changes in meaning when a statement’s wording is slightly modified.

Speaking of which, these types of statements are the ones you tend to get on some IQ tests, or SATs, right? “All zoogles are boogles, you saw a boogle, is it a zoogle?” It doesn’t have to be, since not all boogles are zoogles. It’s funny how you might be able to actually pass this question, but still feel a chill in your body when you’re standing in line at the airport and notice an arab man with long beard and turban standing behind you.

This inability to habitually transfer knowledge and wisdom from one situation to another (in this case; from theory to practise) is a quite depressing aspect of human nature.

I mean (“here we go…”), if your aim in Karate is to learn and enjoy the ultimate form of cultivated self-defense, when was the last time you practised without your gi on?

When? I ask you.

Because, chances are quite big that you won’t be jumped by some hoodlums in your brand new Shureido New Wave 3 (which I bought today by the way!), but instead you’ll most likely be wearing the clothes you use in daily life. Seriously, when was the last time you actually practised Karate in your Italian suit and tie (if you’re a business man), your golden thong (if you’re a gigolo) your apron (if you’re a chef) or your swetpants and t-shirt (if you’re a bum “working from home”)?

Okay, some of you might be thinking this is ridiculous, but I believe it’s the “ridiculous” details that count. Surely nothing which aids you goals should be brushed off as something “ridiculous”, especially not when we’re talking about something as serious as self-defense? I can imagine how some executives might think that having hundreds of purple flowers to greet people at their airport is ridiculous and a waste of money, but obviously I found it “ridiculous” enough to blog about? But I digress.

And if you have actually practised Karate in shoes and jeans (which makes it quite more exciting, to be honest), did you practise against seemingly possessed and aggressive opponents? That raised their voices, shouted and cursed a lot?

Because that’s what happens when the sushi hits the fan.

If you haven’t encountered this before (i.e. in the dojo) you’ll be shocked/stunned/paralyzed (all three?) when it happens in reality, even though you think you won’t. I even know some people who got shocked and paralyzed in training.

That should tell you something.


But then again, using the gi and training indoors (try an alley!) is “what we’ve always done” and “what our sensei has always done” of course “we couldn’t just change that” even if “what you say sounds very good” and all. “It’s tradition, you know?”


I know.

All too well.

Then again, perhaps your goal in Karate is not to learn the ultimate form of “traditional” self-defense? For you it might be all about sport? Trophies, awards and recognition?

Well then, you might as well skip all that kihon crap, along with either kumite or kata (depending on which one you don’t compete in). And kobudo? Forget that, d0ode! There’s no National Team in that!

If your main goal with Karate is to make it to the top spot, you need to treat practise as competition. Put a real tournament mat out. Use a proper gi. Use all protectors (yes, even those that are time consuming to put on). Don’t use mirrors, you won’t be competing with mirrors. Ask three or five people to judge you, even though they they know squat about what you are showing them.

The point? It adds that extra touch of “ridiculousness” that you need in order to feel at home when you are standing there in the spotlight, ready to take home that gold.

Okay, so your main goal in Karate is not competing either? You just want to lose weight?

Same song.

Train in different intervals (some common protocols can be found here), using a timer, for maximum exercise after-burn. Use Tabata. Use a personal pulse meter, and determine your optimum intensity range. Keep records of your weight. Change your diet. Change your habits (don’t skip the stairs if you’re going straight to the StairMaster at the gym anyway!) and the list goes on.

“B-b-but Jesse… I just want to do plain old vanilla Karate. Like I’ve always done!”

Sure. You can do that.

But expect nothing but plain old vanilla results.

The fact of the matter is that Karate today contains all of the above and much more (self-defense, competition, weight loss, physical conditioning, mental training, philosophy, other health stuff…) in an weird semi-oriental eclectic mix of “tradition”, whether you acknowledge it or not. A sensei can teach what he wants, but in the end his teaching(s) has to please a student’s goal(s).

My suggestion is that you step your game up, or else you might be pushing on in the land of mediocrity forever, never knowing the feeling of – if only occasionally – potentially maximizing any facet of your art.

It’s all about practising the transfer of knowledge from one situation to another.


Because not all muslims are terrorists.

But all Okinawans are definitely friendly.

Or was it the other way around?


  • Dojorat
    I am positive that nobody alive today practises or teaches karate exactly the same way it was done in Matsumura`s time. Teaching and practising methods change over even a decade. Even the same sensei changes. Even the current grandmasters in Okinawa do not teach the exactly the same way they were taught. Most are in their 70s or older and do not or cannot teach they way did when they were a bit younger. What really matters is not the method but the content. You can get the same results with modern equipment and you would with `what was used back then` if you know how. So it is a bit naive and misguided to reject a method or training tool just because it did not exist a 100 years ago. Just imagine what karate would be if 200 years ago Okinawans had the tools and knowledge available today. Back then martial arts training was done for one reason only: fighting/self-defense.Doing it for any other reason never even crossed their minds. All the other reasons for doing karate that are heard today are modern and are the result of our relatively peaceful, law-governed society.
  • Gmas
    Hi Guys I just browsing the internet for Karate things and found your blog very impressive, I practice Karate since 1978 and have seen many changes within the training methods’ of Martial arts, not just Karate. As long the end resold is the same and you can train smarter not harder, you should always keep an open mind for new stuff to learn. But if you only like to go the Traditional way and miss out on all the things ,like how increase your speed or develop better kicks because you don’t like to adopt new training methods .well I guess this is up to you .
  • Mark Tankosich
    "For those of you who don’t know what it’s like bumping into somebody in Japan, you really need to come here just to try it. You will literally be showered with excuses and apologies, bowed to a couple of times, and even patted on the shoulder." Hmmmm... I've lived in 3 different Japanese cities for a total of about 19 years, and I have hardly found this to be the case. If anything, it's the opposite of what you describe. People bump into you here and just keep right on going... I can't speak with any authority about Okinawa (only been there once, briefly), but I have to disagree with your characterization on this. Not that it's of any real importance, of course :-)
    • Maybe you're not as cute as me ;)
  • andi
    man, did I see you at Kenritsu Budokan today?
    • What the hell dude, I WAS there! I almost don't even know who you are, by the way ;)
  • Todd
    I personally found Hawaii to both have a much nicer airport, and to have much more of an "Aloha spirit" than Okinawa. Granted, I spent just under a year on Hawaii, and a measly five years on Okinawa, but Hawaii was way more laid back and full of natural beauty than Okinawa.
    • Sounds great, I believe you, and I'm definitely going there next year! :D
  • Szilard
    My goals, and my dojo's goals, forget about it... That's why I train a lot alone. I don't compete, but I like kata, so however ridiculous it sounds, that is what I do in my garage. When I practice alone, I do not use a gi, only my belt is done, because I have to stick somewhere one of my sai in Chatan Yara Dai.
  • It is too much to say that Japanese people are more nice or friendly than other people. Maybe outside they can looks like that, but you never know what a Japanese really think abouth, because they are the most "poker face" people I know. It is also a big different between people in mainland Japan and Okinawans. I feel that Okinawans are more friendly and have more "open mind" attityd that other Japanese. Of course there are all kind of people in all countries, some more nice than other. For many years ago when I was in Japan in my senseis dojo for kobudo training with some of my students, one of the japanese students in the class hit one of my students too hard on his hed with the tonfa by mistake. It was not so hard, but the control was not the best one. The Japanese man become wery unhappy, bow and say "I am so sorry" hundreds of times and also turn his tonfa in his hand and hit him self on his hed with the tonfa to make it very clear for everybody that he really was sorry for that he did! Of course we are all unique and there are big culturaly different between different people from different countries. What is ok in one country is maybe not ok in other. It is just to accept that there you are to show respect to each other and make the world more nice to leave for everybody.
  • Gerry
    Since all I do is train on my own I train with street clothes and different types of footwear. I train in my garage, tennis courts, and on grass fields primarily. My training is Shotokan kata based with bunkai practiced with imagination using a heavy bag with an old winter jacket and an old swimming noodle inserted for the arms. At this point I'm not into the dojo scene at all, but I wouldn't mind having a training partner on occasion!

Leave a comment