One Karate To Rule ‘Em All?

A while back I received an e-mail.

It went:


First of all, let me tell you that your blog is just awesome!


Also, I would like to have your opinion about a question I ask myself so often : we Karate nerds are always looking for self-defense moves in Katas by working our Bunkai, right? And principles underlying techniques are more important than techniques themselves and that’s what Kata must record yes? Well, then, isn’t it a loss of time to try and find out bunkai for Katas ?

I mean, there are some very effective ready-for-use self-defense systems out there (e.g. Krav Maga) which are based on quite clever principles (in fact much close to Karate’s ones in my opinion). Shouldn’t we all then practice Krav Maga rather than Karate ? (my choice : I practice both)

Keep on writing great articles,

Best regards,

Dear C.C: This question, I think, touches at the very heart of one of Karate’s most important (and interesting) issues.


A mixed blessing.

The strength and weakness of Karate.

Thus, depending on how you view and handle the incredibly diverse legacy handed down through generations of Karate teachers, you can either fail miserably or grow remarkably in this forever thought-provoking fighting tradition of Karate.

It’s all about perception.

Fact: There are more kinds of Karate nowadays than most people probably realize. Fitness Karate? Check. Self-defense Karate? Check. Searching-for-sophisticated-principles-in-kata Karate? Definitely check. Krav Maga-style Karate? Check. Sport Karate? Chiggedy check, my friend. Whatever type of Karate you can think of, somebody is most definitely already teaching and preaching it.

Let it be known that Karate, a haphazardly introduced Chinese/Siamese/Okinawan fighting tradition, later to be cultivated in and around the ancient Okinawan castle grounds of Shuri and Naha, never became a homogenous art. It isn’t now, and never was before. Sure, Japanese sources might tell you otherwise, claiming they sit on the “only” one and correct version of “Nihon Karate”, but that is a load of bull manure.

Karate has never been homogenous.

Not even in the same dojo.

Sometimes not even in the same sensei.

(Case example: Kyan Chotoku, legendary pioneer of Tomari-style Karate, taught different versions of the same kata at different ages, leading to much confusion between Shorin based branches in today’s Okinawa.)

So do what the heck you want.

There’s no golden rule. There’s no holy book describing what Karate is or isn’t. There’s just a) stuff that will take you closer to you goals, and b) stuff that won’t take you closer to your goals. Focus on the first one. There’s too many people doing the second anyway. Life’s too short for that.

I urge everyone to embark upon a quest of pursuing the kind of Karate that appeals to them.

I mean, for example; there’s no need for pounding a makiwara hour after hour if all you’re going to do is Sport Karate kumite in the end. Similarly, there’s no need to practise bunkai if you’re not interested in decoding the kata of Karate. And the great thing is – you don’t have to be.

You really don’t have to be interested in every aspect of Karate.

Sure, I am.

But you’re not me. You’re smarter than me. You pick and choose the things that really excite you, and work on those. That’s why you’re a Karate nerd, and that’s why you’re reading this right now. I’m just weird. I happen to love every part equally much, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Don’t be me.

Don’t have headaches.

You are on a quest for Karate-awesomeness in what excites you.

So, if self-defense is what really floats your boat, then learn everything you can about it. Look at systems like Krav Maga. There are many self-defense systems out there, I look at them whenever I can (trying to steal their techniques and ideas). Because, if they have done their homework, they will have rediscovered what has already been known in Karate for ages, yet rarely been taught in an effective manner. Search, and you’ll find. Steal stuff. Copy techniques. Be ruthless. Be an artist. Take inspiration from everywhere.

Do it for yourself, and for everyone else who’s training Karate in the world.

Because what floats your boat might actually sink mine.

It’s like, if the Karate of your dreams doesn’t exist… you will just have to design it. Nobody’s stopping you. Start today. I already told you you’re smart.

Okay, here’s a weird idea: let’s compare with alcohol. Do you want to get totally wasted? Many (young) people certainly do. So they get some fast, effective dirty, raw… vodka? Or sake, if we’re keepin’ it Japanese, aight! It will take them to their goal of getting drunk pretty effectively. Other (old) people are probably not interested in getting sh*tfaced, so they’ll get some good quality aged wine instead. And as we all know, a good wine is a combination of the soil, the sun, the grapes, the moisture, fermentation, bottling, and aging – just to name a few elements. It is sophisticated. It has another goal.

But both are still alcohol.

However, they don’t appeal to the same people.

You can’t market Italian wine and Russian vodka to the same people!

Unless they’re alcoholics, of course (I sense this metaphor is going out of hand…)

What I’m saying is: There is not one recipe for Karate. There’s several. In fact, there’s as many as there are senseis. And if you’re lucky enough to find one whose thoughts and ideas resonate with you, then you can be considered lucky. And if you ain’t found one yet, search. Or create one. Become one. Nobody’s really stopping you. You wouldn’t be the first. Create yourself.

Do it.

Redesign your karate to incorporate both this and that, in a healthy amount (getting shitfaced every day is probably not a good idea.)

I mean, if there is lifestyle design, why can’t there be Karate design?

Surely, for many people Karate is a lifestyle, isn’t it?

Why should it not be what you want it to be? And why shouldn’t you be able to change direction of your Karate ship whenever you decide to sail through some other area in the vast sea of Karate? Huh?

Oh… that’s right.

I forgot.

We’re not “allowed” to.

Forever shackled by the chains of tradition.

This guy rocks. You could too.


  • Leona
    Great article!! Really valid points, although I do believe that leaning Bunkai has been very beneficial to my 'karate development'... Even with it being something I take with a pinch of salt, and initally i wrote it off as rubbish, but now I feel that if I can 'get it' my karate gseatly enhanced! I'd say give everything a chance even If initially it's not 'your bag' Thanks for a great insight!!
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    The founder of our club was in town this weekend and he said that if we wanted to dig deeply into bunkai we could but that we didn't have to if we didn't want to. As long as we understood what we were doing in our kata then we didn't need to practice bunkai in order to benefit from the training we were doing. I have to admit that I was relieved. I do think about the principles the moves in my kata are teaching me but I don't want to spend endless hours practicing possible bunkai. The direction of my training has changed in the last 12 months from focusing on more tradional training to tournament focused trainiing. Apart from doing a kata/bunkai demo for NAS, I'm not really interested at this time in bunkai. I'm sure however that there will be a time when I am. That's the beauty of the diversity in karate. I CAN focus on whatever 'floats my boat' at any given time and there is always an avenue of training that will accomodate it.
  • diego romero
    *flings poo at tradition*
  • There are many people here on Okinawa that had a really hard time learning Karate. So their teachers had to tell them over and over and over again, and still it didn`t work, they wouldn`t get it. So, because Sensei felt for them and had a very warm heart, finally he gave them some Shihan license or something. And they were very proud and swore they will teach their Senseis Karate to the world forever, in it`s pure form. :)))))
  • Boban Alempijevic
    great article. totally agree with you on every single point. When I retook my training after 13 years of no training at all ( became a Computer geek with aching back and knees...) I found a sensei I liked. Then I noticed in my self that I was not the least interested in sports karate that is the big thing in our club, but more towards ( completely towards ) Raw kick ass power spirit ala Dragon ball style Karate. Ipon with a raw twist I guess. I thought to my self, I will continue with my sensei since I lööörv the dude, he loves Karate over anything else and does not go 100% in only one direction but teaches different applications for every movement and technique. Then I took my brown belt and still to this day I get tears in my eyes remembering not just what he told me in front of everyone but allso his eyes. "It is refreshening to se old times pure spirit with a mean edge to it, you do not see such people now a days in our sports karate world." Something happened with our training after that day, not because of me of course, but because Sensei felt it was time to apply some old style training, it became more rough. Sure, sports Karate, but with a raw twist to it. I cant get enough of training now a days, and yet I search constantly for ways to improve my Karate outside the Karate arena, such as picking up Qi gong, Gong Fu, and even nervously looking at Baji Quan and dreaming of trying it some day. All for one single dream, to become a truly strong karateka in all senses. Tradition in all its glory, in the end, you choose your own path! Love your karate, do not be afraid though to learn everything you can from everything else outside Karate as well.
  • Oh My Goodness. You realise there are fanatical karate traditionalist plotting your demise at this very moment for uttering such sacrilige, don't you? ;) Personally... I couldn't agree more. Our Shihan is very much of this mind set and encourages us to use what works in our karate (not necessarily what is "traditional" karate). Adaptation of the techniques to obtain the best possible outcome for you. Makes perfect sense to me. Another great post as always Jesse. xMx
  • Seb
    Awesome to the power of awesome :) I myself have picked up a little kickboxing and parkour, trying to improve my karate. I did it very recently, so there are no results to brag about... yet. :)
  • Julia
    Great point! I've seen way too many people " locked in boxes" ( as you would put it) to even consider trying another style or admitting that their style has its deficiencies. I have my main style of shuri-ryu karate, but I train in shotokan, ju-jitsu, and kobudo, to become a well-rounded martial artist. Unfortunately, many people don't seem to understand that time spent outside of the home dojo is not wasted. :-( On the bright side, it does give me insights that others may miss. :-)
  • Ralf
    Concerning the issue of being allowed to do something: My Sensei once said to us on one of his seminars: Whenever you have the chance to learn something, do it! No matter who it is you can learn from. Keep your eyes open. But don't keep only eyes open and your heart closed. Cause when your heart is closed you can have your eyes open and you still won't see.
  • Andrew Evans
    Jesse San how can someone so young be so wise?, Bruce Lee would have been proud of you, For me spirit before technique as Gichin said once. interpretation is everything, it is when we lose the meaning, we lose the art, the art is nothing without interpretation and we fail the art if we lose its original meaning. With respect Oss
  • Sydfrey
    About the question posted which sparked this article, here is my comment: I do not know much about krav maga but I've seen videos of it and it's pretty popular in the military close quarters combat and self defense. However, based on what I've seen in those videos, for example, arm locks, pulling opponent arms, then striking; simple yet effective use of trips and outbalancing an attacker, it is all in kata. I see hikite! In fact, everything I see in these videos, THEY ARE KARATE! But the problem with the moves presented is that they vary too much and they are hard to remember. It is as if they're saying that the counter for this attack should be like this or this attack should be handled like this. They are quite specific and they vary and they are many. So it's hard to remember, especially if you are not an experienced karate-ka. And in here can only karate provide the solution for these wide range of tactics presented. How? Kata.......and its BUNKAI! BOOOMMM!! Kata is a memory device yes? And the movements in kata, they can be interpreted in any way as long as you base it on the HAPV. In conclusion, krav maga is good, really it is. I have nothing against it. But saying that it is a waste of time to learn bunkai out of the techniques of the kata? Or figure out bunkai is a waste of time? No way! If you are indeed dedicated to karate, learning the bunkai of a kata makes your karate alive. Isn't that wonderful? ;-)

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