When you put on your gi, strap on your obi, and step into the dojo, why are you doing so?
No doubt you have your own reasons; as do I mine, and as do your teacher and training partner theirs. But do our reasons all match? Or, indeed, do they need to match?
The answer, of course, is: No.
Particularly in western cultures, karate is often seen purely as a form of self defence. Priority, both psychically and psychologically, is given to training forms and techniques that prepare karateka for violent encounters in the ‘real world’.
And whilst this is undoubtedly a significant aspect of anyone’s karate training, that is certainly not to say it is the only one, or indeed the most important to everyone.
In Japanese, there is a saying: 十人十色 (jyu nin to iro), which means “10 people, 10 colours”. In other words, it refers to how everyone has their own ideas and tastes: “different strokes for different folks”, if you will. And I believe this applies so fittingly to the diverse array of motivations that drive karateka to step into the dojo.
To take a different look at it: when joining a rugby team, is it everyone’s goal to be selected for the All Blacks and to win the World Cup? Not necessarily. Some may play simply for the enjoyment factor, others for fitness, or perhaps just to be a part of a team environment.
And when learning to play the guitar, is it everyone’s goal to become the next Jimi Hendrix and tour the world? Again, not necessarily. Some may practice for fun, to master a new skill, or simply to add another string to their bow.
At the end of the day, everyone has their own motivational factors driving their desire to do literally anything in their lives.
And I believe this is certainly true in karate training. Some may train for the enjoyment, to learn a new skill, to have to goal to work towards, to get fit, to be a part of a club, to enrich their own lives, or to master a historical and tradition-rich art. It’s not necessarily the case that everyone steps into the dojo simply to learn self defence against the most violent, brutal criminals in the world.
For many, karate training is about mastering an art, and mastering all aspects of that art.
As such, we must practice kata until the techniques are perfect, performed elegantly and refined. We must practice bunkai in various contexts (see this discussion) so that it not only works well, but also so that it demonstrates the art we are working to perfect.
We must work to sculpt ourselves so that our character reflects the key elements of budo so deeply engrained in the history of the art we strive to perfect.
Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan Karate-Do) said:
“The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”
And this is what truly defines us as karateka.
A good practitioner of karate is not one who can win 100 fights. A good karateka is someone with virtue, humility, honesty, respect, courtesy, and integrity. Someone who is willing to put in the time, patience, persistence, and practice required to preserve and perfect the art that has been passed down to us through the generations, resulting in the ability to protect oneself. “Spirit first, technique second.” – Gichin Funakoshi.
Engaging in brutal fighting and learning a self-defence accordingly is only one part of karate training. A combination of that, alongside mastering the art and perfecting one’s character, is what I believe is required to be a truly fulfilled karateka.
Karate is so much more than simple self-defence: it is a lifestyle.
“Karate aims to build character, improve human behaviour, and cultivate modesty; it does not, however, guarantee it.” – Yasuhiro Konishi (founder of Shindo Jinen-ryu Karate).
It is thus your job to insure the all-round cultivation of yourself as a karateka, and it is our job to recognise all aspects of what that encompasses when viewing and assessing someone else.
Acknowledging the array of motivations that drive people to step into the dojo is incredibly important. We must take these factors into account as we review our own training style, and indeed, ourselves as practitioners, and our position along the path of Goju-Ryu.