Is Shotokan Karate good for real fighting?

Now there’s a question that everyone who has trained a bit in karate has thought about at least once or twice! And, it’s a question that those of us who have set ourselves up to teach Shotokan find ourselves answering one way or another on a regular basis.   How an instructor goes about answering this question reveals much about how he thinks about karate, and probably a great deal about how he goes about teaching the art on a day-to-day basis.  For instance, I am immediately disposed to say “of course, Shotokan is a very effective style for real fighting.”  Other highly qualified instructors that I’ve discussed the matter with over the years start by saying that the question is all but irrelevant, and that our practice of our art does not depend in any way on it’s effectiveness for “real fighting.”  I am uncomfortable with this position, although I understand why reasonable and experienced men come around to it, and I believe it is entirely defensible. More on that as we go along.

We need to do one more thing before we can start discussing Shotokan’s “combat effectiveness”, and that is to get clear on what we mean by “real fighting”. For those of us who spend the many years of training that traditional martial art demands, “real fighting” can only mean desperate, dirty, and dangerous self-defense against criminal attack.  This will mean using our training in an uncontrolled, no-rules fight against someone who intends to harm us or someone else who needs defending.  It will be a spur-of-the-moment encounter that we cannot avoid by resorting to the civil authorities and the law.  No civilized person wants to be put in such a position, and the guiding ethos of traditional karate is to avoid such encounters if at all possible.

So, will our Shotokan technique of punching, striking and kicking, along with the style’s footwork and body movement be effective in rendering an attacker unable to continue?  This can be answered with an unqualified yes.  Shotokan techniques have been proven to be effective in causing more than enough damage to various parts of the human anatomy to render even a strong, athletic man unable to continue an attack.  This has been proven over and over through the years since Shotokan’s inception in the Thirties.  It has been proven by board-breaking and tile-breaking, by striking makiwara and punching bags, by collisions in sparring, both intended and accidental and by actual self-defense encounters.  I believe that anyone who observes an experienced, well –trained karateka executing his techniques will conclude that these techniques will wreak considerable damage on an attacker’s anatomy, if properly aimed, timed and delivered.  So there need be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Shotokan style of fighting technique is an effective one.

However, we need also to ask whether or not the Shotokan way of training that we use in dojos all over the world is working to give students the wherewithal to use these techniques in a desperate fight, and here, I believe, the answer is a qualified “maybe”. “The devil is in the details” as the saying goes, and many Shotokan students are not training in a way that will prepare them to use their style in any kind of real fight.

To start with, I made the point in my previous article that Shotokan requires long-term, reasonably intense training, under the guidance of a knowledgeable instructor.  A karateka must maintain a training regimen that includes at least three serious workouts per week over a period of about four years to acquire good balance, quick movement, and some ability to strike with powerful, focused punches and kicks.  This defines a first-level black-belt student.  Then, one must continue to accumulate several more years of disciplined training and experience before one can say that they have acquired enough skill and self-knowledge to be relaxed and confident in any serious clash with a determined attacker.  Now, there are a great many karate students who train for many years without any real intensity or direction, or who train for long periods of time at a pace of one or two days per week at best, and in my experience, these students do not acquire effective karate skills.  They may show correct technique, but their movements and blows do not have the deeply ingrained quality, the inner strength, the kime or focus, that effective karate requires.  Effective karate techniques require long-term, intense training to develop, and then constant practice to maintain.  This is an important part of what Master Nakayama meant when he said that “karate is lifetime budo”.

So, if a karateka has trained for enough years to acquire the technical side of Shotokan, is he ready to defend himself in a serious fight? Not necessarily.  There are several other key ingredients to karate training that a student must have absorbed before he is ready to undergo the ultimate test of self-defense.  Let me enumerate what I think these ingredients are:

1.  Kumite – By “Jiyu Kumite” we mean “free-sparring”, a training method whereby students enter into controlled but spirited and competitive matches with one another, in which each contestant may attack and defend freely and without pre-arrangement, using almost all of the techniques that he has learned in his regular training.  The blows must be stopped just short of contact with the face and head, but may be struck with some seriousness to the body, subject to differences in size and experience.  Thus, a karateka learns to respond to pressure from an opponent, acquires some bumps and bruises that accompany any fighting style, and most importantly, learns to be calm and collected when faced with possibility of physical and psychological defeat.  The difficulty of doing Kumite well is a life-time challenge, not to be underestimated.  It is of indispensable value in allowing a karate student to learn to use his art in a self-defense situation.


Unfortunately, many Shotokan karate schools do not teach Kumite on a regular basis, perhaps because the instructor is not thoroughly familiar with it, or because it is a somewhat risky training method, and many students wish to avoid it.  Kumite is not “real-fighting”, but it contains some of the elements of actual fighting, and is the closest thing to actual fighting that we can use as a training method in a traditional karate school.  I do not believe that anyone can hope to use Shotokan karate in any serious self-defense situation without having undergone extensive free-sparring training.  Much more remains to be said about Kumite as a training method, and I shall take this up in more detail in another article.


2.  Actual Hitting Practice – You might think that a martial art that is based on Kicking and punching would require its participants to practice really hitting something on a regular basis.  After all, this is what boxers and kick boxers do, isn’t it? They are constantly hitting light and heavy bags, speed bags, air shields and striking pads, right?


   Surely a karateka does this too? Not really.  In fact, I would say the vast majority of Shotokan karate students have done little or no actual hitting practice over their entire careers.  Thus, they have no solid basis of experience of what happens to various parts of their hands and feet, elbows, shoulders, hips, etc. when they make an actual hit with one of their carefully developed karate techniques.  A karateka who does not have extensive experience with hitting training aids lacks feeling for hitting, and feeling, not thinking, is what one must rely on is desperate situations.  And here, we come back to the necessity of kumite practice, for it is only in free sparring that a karateka can learn to do his techniques against an attacker spontaneously, without thought.  A technique that has not been refined to the point where it can be used at the split second of opportunity as it arises will not be useful under the intense pressure of a real self-defense encounter.

3. Experience with other styles of fighting -  Most Shotokan students around the world are “traditionalists”, and so belong to an association of senior instructors who maintain their own ideas of stylistic integrity.  There are many such associations, but they all tend to insist that their students experience their training and competition exclusively within their own particular groups.  Thus, Shotokan students have little or no experience of matching their karate against any other style of martial art, and they are really only experts at sparring with other Shotokan students within their own particular association.  This experience is necessarily narrow.  As an inexperienced student many years ago, I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to compete in many “all-styles” tournaments, and I well remember the disconcerting effect of facing someone who moved in a completely unfamiliar way.  This tends to have the effect of making a karateka forget his own style and way of moving, with comic effect as you may imagine.  Thus, I think karateka should seek to experience competition with other styles of martial art, although I recognize that this can give rise to difficulties.  In any case, I don’t want to overemphasize this point, as I don’t regard it as being nearly as important as the afore-mentioned kumite and actual hitting practice.  Find some other stylists to practice with if you can, but if not, don’t worry too much about it.


    So, once our Shotokan student has had many years of intense, technically correct training, lots of sparring practice, years of actual hitting practice, and maybe even some experience with sparring with other martial arts styles, is he ready for a real, self-defense encounter? We hope so, but he can’t be sure until he’s been in a fight and survived it.  And this is natural and unavoidable.  When many members of our father’s and grandfather’s generations were called to train for war to the death with the forces of tyranny, they didn’t know how they would react in battle until they were actually in it.  Their training stood them in good stead, they stood up to the enemy, and they got the job done.  So my advice to serious karateka who are faced with a self-defense situation is to have faith in yourself and your training, apply what you have learned in hundreds of hard nights in the dojo, and do your best to survive.  You will get the job done.

Copyright © 2009 Fudoshin Karate Club All Rights Reserved.

One Response to “Article 2”

  1. Carlo Crisol says:

    Hello Sensei,

    I had read your article and afterwards tears came to my eyes as what you were saying is all true from an experienced martial artist. Yes, karate-when someone begins it, has trained everyday, has sparred, has encountered a life and death situation and has lived through it knows the real meaning of what its like. I am 41years old and have experienced all of this. My grandfather lived during the war fighting as a soldier against the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. He lived in Japan before the invasion and was trained in traditional Japanese karate that he trained me in. He went back home to the Philippines when WWII started. One thing I can never forget is that he had told me that in the midst of battle one must have a mind as clear as water. I too have used karate in life and death situations as after the war, the Philippines had a high crime rate after the war even up to today. I consider myself to be lucky to be alive. Luck or skill for me to be alive?-maybe both. I could have been dead and am happy to be alive. I now enjoy every day of life in Canada with my 8 year old daughter. I am training her in traditional karate like my grandfather but have not the patience my grandfather had with me. She needs karate more than me as she is a girl. She has many distractions in this modern age-Internet, Wii, Nintendo, playmates etc. It is something to practice karate in real life but it takes another skill to be patient with your student during training-which i don’t have. Many things on work are still on my mind even after the day is through. I need someone who has the spirit of karate, training in karate for the sake of the passion and not the money, and the patience for their student. Would it be possible for you to train my daughter? I live a little way far from your school but I’m willing to sacrifice driving my daughter to your school 2 or 3 x a week. Thanks.

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