Functional Karate


When the average person hears the phrase "martial arts", karate is often the first style that comes to mind. It's also one of the most misunderstood styles even by those who practice and teach it. In order to understand how to use karate in self defense, real karate, it will help to briefly explain the cause of this misunderstanding.

From Bujutsu to Pseudo Budo

Karate has roots in centuries old combative systems of Japan. Today however, with few exceptions, the practice and application bears little resemblance to what was originally intended. The primary reason can be traced back to Japan in the late 1800s, when the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji Restoration or modernization of Japan began. Here is a quote from Donn Draeger's excellent book, "Modern Bujutsu & Budo":

"Ultranationalists and militarists, both in and out of government, distorted the intrinsic purpose of classical bujutsu (martial arts) and budo (martial ways), thus proving the truism that new uses can be found for any product of man's ingenuity; indeed, a hammer can be used to paint a house if it satisfies the expectations of whoever uses it in this absurd fashion.

The intrinsic nature of classical bujutsu is manifested by the threefold relationship: (1) combat, (2) discipline, and (3) morals. The forced change modified this relationship to the following: (1) discipline, (2) morals. Similarly, the intrinsic nature of classical budo comprises (1) morals, (2) discipline, (3) aesthetic form. This was changed to (1) discipline, (2) morals. It will readily be seen by these changes, made approximately a century ago, that the people advocating them made no distinction between bujutsu and budo; in their eyes, the two were equated. This is the overriding reason for the general misunderstanding of classical disciplines that prevails today, which helps explain why the majority of modern Japanese are unable to distinguish between these two very different kinds of classical disciplines, and furthermore, why they are unable to make any distinction at all between classical and modern disciplines."

The original Okinawan style, karate-jutsu, was primarily a form of unarmed combat. In the late 1800s and early 1900s karate-jutsu underwent a transformation, to karate-do. Not only did the style change from a form of bujutsu (martial art) to budo (martial way), but the Chinese characters or kanji used to represent the term kara-te also changed despite the pronunciation remaining the same. Most younger Japanese no longer even recognize the original kanji, and even fewer realize how much the style itself was changed, from a combative system to a traditional art taught to school children to develop discipline and morals.

These changes in purpose, practice, and application have created a modern system that has little to do with real fighting or combat. Karate as it is commonly practiced today is more like a traditional Japanese art or dance that uses fighting-like movements. Because most practitioners and observers have either never used it for self defense, or have only used it within the conditioned environment of the karate dojo, this reality is not apparent.

Real Karate: Karate-Jutsu

Fortunately, based on older books and a few remaining karate jutsu schools, the techniques of karate haven't changed much. The purpose of training, training methods, and applications have changed, which makes modern karate relatively ineffective as a self defense system. But by looking at the techniques through the universal principles of fighting or combat, along with a change in the purpose of training, training methods, and applications, the techniques can be made to work very well. The movements of modern day karate can be used in the practice and application of karate-jutsu.

With that said, karate is a hard core style that is not for everyone. There are certainly karate techniques that require less force, but most blocks and attacks are direct and very forceful. Because of modern karate's reputation, it might seem that a style like boxing or Thai boxing would be more forceful than karate. But in my experience nearly every aspect of karate is forceful and somewhat painful, especially before a practitioner becomes conditioned to them. I started out in a karate based style with a heavy self defense emphasis, and for many years my arms and legs were perpetually bruised. As my limbs became more and more conditioned, we simply trained harder and harder.

Functional Karate Techniques

The key to applying karate techniques in self defense is to avoid the block-then-counter mentality that is so commonly practiced today. Blocks should be viewed as attacks, as demonstrated in the video above, so that the block itself either injures your opponent or disrupts his attack by ramming him and disturbing his balance and ability to continue. Although this is rarely done in modern karate, it is recommended in one of the most well known karate books, "Dynamic Karate", by Masatoshi Nakayama:

"The upper block can be used as an attack in the following way. When the opponent attacks your head with a punch, lower your hips, lean slightly forward and step in under the attacking arm. At the same time, apply the upper block in such a way that you simultaneously attack his armpit with your elbow and his chin with the bottom of your first.

As your opponent moves forward to attack your body with a punch, step into his attack and block with a wide-sweeping forearm or knife-hand block. Your purpose is to block his attack and at the same time to strike the point under his nose with your fist, or to poke his eyes with your fingers."

Another option is to do away with the block all together. Evade an attack while simultaneously launching an attack of your own.

Blocks in karate tend to be large, wide, sweeping motions. This is seen as a negative by practitioners of sport based systems, because it appears that karate style blocks require too much movement and are too slow. If the blocks are used as parries instead of as attacks, this criticism is correct. But when used as attacks, especially when viewed as extensions of a "flinch response" in the context of self defense, they make a great deal of sense.

Stances also play a crucial role in the power of karate techniques. But in order to use them effectively they should not be statically held. The transition from stance to stance is even more important than the final position itself. It is the transition that generates the power. For example, although the reverse punch is thought of as being thrown from or in a front stance, it should be thrown from either a rooted stance or modified (higher and narrower) horse stance, transitioning to the front stance through the motion of the punch. This transition allows the hips and body to rotate into the strike.

For example, as a rule of thumb:

  • Use a rooted stance (half way between a front stance and a horse stance) or a horse stance at the beginning of a rear handed attack, transitioning into a front stance on impact.
  • Use a rooted stance or modified front stance at the beginning of a front handed attack, transitioning into a horse stance at 45 degrees to your opponent on impact.

Take a look at the stance transitions in the following images:

Ready Position Inward Forearm Block

From a natural position I step into a horse stance, shifting into the inward forearm block/attack.

Reverse Punch Knife Hand Strike

From the forearm block/attack in the second image, I step forward and throw a reverse punch, shifting into a front stance, and then step forward again with a knife-hand strike, shifting into a horse stance.

Following the principles above, along with the information on my self defense techniques, training, and strategy pages, will give karate practitioners the ability to make their techniques functional and use them for self defense.

In the near future I'll add more karate techniques and applications to this page, so if you're not already a subscriber, subscribe using the form below, and check back soon!