The paradoxes of karate 空手のパラドックスとは

Maybe the readers are perplexed when they see the title of this essay. I am happy if it made you curious. In fact, I believe there are two big paradoxes in Japanese budo (martial art) such as kenjutsu (sword fencing), kyudo (Japanese archery), karate, etc. As this essay is written for the karate practitioners, I am focusing the discussion on the karate (martial art without weapons) situation.


You may already know the facts that I will present but you may not consider them to be paradoxical or unnatural. Let me present my case and see what you think.


Paradox One:  

Karate is a martial art which means we teach and practice techniques to maim and even kill our opponents.


Is maiming or killing a person a good thing? I am sure you will strongly deny that. Then, are we teaching the students at our dojo how to be criminals? Of course we are not. It is illegal to take action without a cause. On the other hand, we are allowed to use necessary force when we must defend ourselves.


I found it interesting that beating up a person who is just passing by in the street is a criminal act, but we are allowed to teach such a skill and the karate sensei is well respected. We think nothing of the fact we are teaching and learning “killing” techniques, because we know that we are doing it for self-defense purposes.


Interesting that the main purpose for learning and practicing budo with the weapons such as kenjutsu, iaido and kyodo is not particularly for self-defense. We normally do not carry a sword or bow and arrow in our daily life. They practice those arts for other purposes such as discipline and mental training. Learning how to shoot a pistol may be quite different. As it is mainly for the self-defense purpose. However, pistol shooting is not a Japanese budo so I will not include it in this essay.


The legality is the same when it comes to learning or teaching how to cut a person with a sword. However, there is a big difference between karate and kenjutsu or iaido. That can become a sticky situation for karate practitioners. In kenjtsu, of course one must have a tool or a weapon (a sword) to harm another person. On the other hand, with karate you do not need any tool because your body is a weapon. If a karate practitioner had to defend himself using his karate skill and knocked out their opponent. He needs to worry if they would be sued for the fact they knew karate and they might have retaliated too excessively.


In fact, a karate weapon, Nunchaku, is illegal in most of the US and many of the western countries even to purchase or own one. As you know most of the Nunchaku is only a pair of wooden or plastic sticks. The steel or metal Nunchaku are being made but not popular as they are much heavier, except for the light aluminum ones that are used for demonstration purposes. It is very strange and unfair that carrying a pair of wooden sticks is illegal while it is legal to carry a pistol or high power gun in most of the states in the USA. This is an interesting subject, but we will not go into this subject as we should focus on karate subject.


Paradox Two:

We all know that we are living in the world of high tech weapons including missiles, rockets and nuclear bombs. On the other hand, karate is a hand to hand combat. According to Webster dictionary karate is defined as follows: A Japanese art of self-defense employing hand strikes and kicks to disable or subdue an opponent.


Isn’t it amazing that karate is becoming popular in the world of nuclear bombs? Recently karate has been accepted in the Olympic Games and they will debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The popularity of karate is at its all-time high. According to one research, the world wide population of karate is now, believe it or not, surpassing 100 million.


Comparing use of a nuclear weapon to karate may be too extreme. It is a fact, however, that we live in the world where, at least in most of the countries, guns are very popular and common.


Here are the statistics to show the pervasiveness of firearms in the USA. According to an article in “The Guardian” U.S. citizens own at least 265 million firearms. This means about one gun for every American citizen including babies. The US is by far the number one country to own guns. The distant second is Yemen with about 55 guns for every 100 people or one gun per capita.

Here is the full article on the gun numbers if you are interested.


In the country where karate originated, Japan, there is gun violence also each year, though far less than most of the western countries. According to the National Police Agency announced that there were only 22 shooting crimes in 2017. Members of organized crime syndicates or yakuza were the perpetrators in 13 of the crimes. Amazingly only 3 people were killed and 5 injured.

Here is the full article on the gun crimes in Japan.


Even if you are an expert in karate, your chance of survival in a fight against an opponent with a gun or even a knife is much less than when you have a gun in your hand. Some of the karate and martial art instructors teach their students how to defend themselves in a fight against an opponent armed with a knife or a gun. It is my personal opinion, what they are doing is quite irresponsible if they believe an amateur person can do those techniques in the real street fight or a hold up situation. Even if you had trained on those techniques for several years, I do not think it is a wise idea to risk one’s life fighting against an armed assailant.


Against an opponent with a knife or a gun, I recommend to my students not to fight back but to give them your wallet and other valuables to save their lives. Such an act is not cowardice but rather a wise choice and an excellent self-defense tactic. The most stupid thing is to become a dead “hero” when the opponent is asking only for material things.


Of course, it is a totally different story if the opponent is threatening your life or the life of your loved ones. You have to fight to protect your loved ones and your life. But, how many times do you think you will be in that situation in your life? Typically, a robber or a gang member would not risk his life to assault you. If you show that you are willing to fight to the death, you will be able to intimidate him to back down. To do this, karate skill is not required. What is required is your attitude and posture.


Then, why is the popularity of karate increasing around the world including Japan? As I mentioned earlier, I do not think karate techniques can be a sufficient self-defense weapon against an opponent with a gun. Is it increasing because the average citizens believe otherwise? I do not think so. I believe the people are looking at karate for different reasons.


For the children, I hear two major reasons. One is that the parents want their children to learn karate so that they will not be easily bullied. The other main reason is that the parents want the kids to learn discipline and etiquette.


When you ask the adult practitioners why they started to practice karate, you will find something very interesting. Other than those whose parents forced them to take karate, the most frequent reason is that they wanted to look like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. The kung fu movies from the 70’s and 80’s had a great impact on the youths at that time. Mainly the young boys wanted to be like a kung fu master just like many of the boys dreamed of being able to become superman. While the superman is totally fictitious, a kung fu master seemed to be realistic.


Of course, after training in karate most of us realized the super human like kung fu or karate master is also fictitious. Despite that, it did not stop them from training as they discovered the other values such as respect, perseverance, courage, honor, etc. I am sure I do not need to elaborate or explain further as many of the readers have experienced what I described above.


I want to conclude this short essay with the final paradox of karate. Te, the old name for karate used in Okinawa, originated hundreds of years ago. During the time of the samurai, they had to develop hand to hand combat techniques. At that time, they were literally fighting for life or death. Now in the 21st century, while we are enjoying more peaceful life, karate is becoming more and more popular. It is not because karate can be used in a street fight but mainly because it is a fun sport. Karate matches these days are totally safe with all kinds of protectors. The competitors are allowed to use only safe techniques. The dangerous techniques such as stubbing the eyes or kicking the groin are prohibited and by using such a technique the competitors can lose the match.


Karate originated from the killing techniques with bare hands and practiced only by a few selected samurai or palace guards. Karate in the 21st century has become a very safe and a fun activity enjoyed by millions of people. I am not sure if the ancient karate masters of long ago who created Te with their sweat and blood would be happy if they could see the “development” and bless the popularity.


I consider this gap to be the biggest paradox of karate. What do you think?


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