“Budo Karate”, “Sport Karate” or “Family Karate”?

 What kind of Shotokan Karate should we be practicing?


Before I attempt to define what we mean in the Shotokan world when we talk about these supposedly distinct types of karate training, I’d like to get two statements about my own personal practice on the table.  Firstly, I’ve been training steadily, with no significant gaps in training, since 1973.  I can say that I’ve averaged 4 training sessions per week for 36 years.  Secondly, I believe I’ve had long-term experience with all three of these sorts of karate training, so that I can say that my comments are informed by lots of experience.


1)    Budo Karate

In the history of Shotokan karate, so-called “Budo Karate” predates both “Sport Karate” and “Family Karate”, so let’s start there.  “Budo” means “martial way”, or less literally, “martial art”.  Thus when one is practicing “Budo Karate”, one should be practicing in a way that is closely focused on actual fighting.  Here, problems immediately arise.  I’ve often observed that the major problem that we confront in karate is one of teaching people how to fight without ever letting them experience any real fighting.  And even more fundamentally problematic is the fact that the vast majority of us who teach Shotokan have never had any real fighting experience.  Shotokan sensei, I believe, have a very deep understanding of physical technique and how to train to acquire it, but their knowledge of actual application of techniques in fighting is almost entirely theoretical.  I am convinced that our top Shotokan senseis, starting with Master Funakoshi, have done a masterful job of developing a practical fighting style, without ever having had any meaningful way to test it, up until the very recent advent of MMA Sport fighting.  Parenthetically, I think that Lyota Machida is the most important Shotokan stylist in the world at the present time, but that’s a subject for another article.


So, back to Budo Karate.  This is the old, original Shotokan, developed in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, perfected in Japanese university clubs, and always having been aimed at developing an invincible fighting style, a style aimed at forming the human body into a destructive weapon.  This style of training is necessarily intense, even harsh, and is best suited for athletically talented, extremely dedicated young males, men who are prepared to be subjected to fanatic, even risky training over many years of hard practice.  This style of practice is till alive and well in the JKA Instructor Training Program in Japan.  It places a premium on physical fitness and powerful blocks, strikes, kicks, and punches.  Budo karate training includes many hours of actual hitting practice on the makiwara and punching bags.  Kumite is done with no gloves, mouth guards, or groin protectors, and features hard body contact with kicks and punches, throwing and grappling techniques, and an overall emphasis on properly rooted, powerful attacks.  It is dangerous, risky, and somewhat conservative kumite.  Injuries are common, to be expected and tolerated as the price to be paid for effective martial art.


As for Budo Karate kata, it is not thought of as merely an athletic exercise, but essential training aimed at developing mentally and physically effective karate.  Techniques are driven to full extension and a full finish point, never shortened to “speed up” the kata.  And finally, Budo Karate places far greater emphasis on fighting ability than it does on rank.  Budo Karate students are not concentrating their efforts on the next available rank test, but rather on long-term development of karate ability.


2)    Sport Karate

“Sport Karate” is a relatively recent development in Shotokan, having been with us since the late Fifties.  Here, we are talking about focusing our training on kata and kumite competition in a tournament format.  Like “Budo Karate”, Sport Karate training is best suited to younger karateka, and women are certainly included.  Successful tournament competitors will be gifted with natural quickness, good reflexes, and especially, flexibility, since both kata and Kumite require good flexibility.  Thus, sport karate appeals most directly to the more athletically gifted type of karate student.


Sport Karate training will wax and wane somewhat over the course of the year’s tournament schedule, since competitors like to “peak” in their training just at tournament time.  Good physical condition is certainly important in this type of karate, as no competitor can afford to be “out-trained” by other competitors.


Speed is of paramount importance, both in kata and kumite competition.  In my experience, it is almost impossible to win in kata competition without doing the katas pretty quickly, since judges are almost sub-consciously impressed by quickness.  Thus, as has been observed by many senior Shotokan senseis, the kata have become much more quickly performed, and the time elapsed per kata performance has steadily been shortening, since the old days of Budo Karate.  Also, since smaller bodies are likely to move more quickly than larger ones, successful kata competitors tend to be of small to medium size. (This does not necessarily hold true for competition in Kumite, as height and reach are almost as useful as quickness.)


A few years of Sport Karate training are no detriment to the lifelong pursuit of Budo Karate, and indeed, sporting competition gives great incentive to train hard when one is young.  Training for Sport Karate is serious business, and competition karate is excellent experience for serious, long-term karate practitioners.  Those karateka who have some talent for the art should enter wholeheartedly into competition karate, learn as much as they can from it, and then return to life time, regular karate training as they grow older.


3)    Family Karate

By far the largest percentage of Shotokan karateka around the world are engaged in what we call “Family Karate”.  As the name implies, this is training for men and women of all ages, and includes karate training for children.  Indeed, I believe that we have come to the point in the world of Shotokan where maybe 75% of our students are under the age of eighteen, and we are facing a decline in interest in karate among adults.  Why is this case?


I suspect that the answer to this question lies in the way in which “Family Karate” is promoted and taught by a large percentage of Shotokan dojos around the world.  For instance, much of the old “Budo Karate” traditional discipline has been abandoned by “Family Karate” senseis.  Students are allowed to break ranks to rest, or to get a drink of water and wipe their faces in the middle of class.  Students are allowed to talk, ask questions, and initiate long-winded discussions during workouts.  No-one is expected to train more than one or two times per week, and it is possible to advance to black belt rank with this sort of sporadic training regimen.  It is not expected that students learn free kumite as their ranks advance, and real fighting ability in any sort of self-defense situation is not on the menu, or worse, simply assumed to be possible without hard training.  And finally, black belts are given routinely to children as young as twelve or thirteen years of age, thereby demonstrating that fighting effectiveness is not relevant to “Family Karate”.


I could go on multiplying this list of what I see as the negatives of “Family Karate” as it is taught in too many Shotokan dojos, but perhaps enough has been said to make my point.  More importantly, however, is to ask the question, does Family Karate have to be taught this way?  I believe the answer is a resounding no.   A karate instructor has a duty to teach everything that has made his karate strong to anyone who wants to make the effort to learn.  It is not the duty of a karate instructor to pander to the weaknesses of students, but rather, to help them find the strength within themselves to learn karate properly and completely to the limits that their talents will allow.  When prospective students come to a traditional dojo to learn karate, they are a blank slate, and will very quickly form a conception of what karate culture is by watching their sensei, senior students, and fellow beginners.  If the dojo has a lax atmosphere in which expectations are low and discipline is lacking and if the dojo is run as more of a “social club” than a martial arts school, then that is what they will henceforth believe is what karate is.  A traditional karate dojo is, first-and-foremost, an educational institution.  Learning means change for the better, and requires discipline and effort.


So… at our dojo we teach “Family Karate” to men and women of all ages, and to children as well, if they are accompanied by an adult.  I try to bring to bear everything that I have experienced in my own career of Budo and Sport Karate when I teach Family Karate.  I hope to persuade students that karate is not primarily about socializing or the next belt rank, but is rather about a long-term effort to find oneself through martial art.  I and my assistant instructors provide an atmosphere in our classes which we know is conducive to this effort.  Everyone is welcome at our dojo, but everyone is expected to show traditional discipline and effort, and to enter wholeheartedly into the culture of long-term, Shotokan karate training.  Family karate need not be modern, ineffective, watered-down karate.


Copyright 2009 Fudoshin Karate Club. All rights reserved.

One Response to “Article 5”

  1. Richard says:

    Very well written and thought provoking . . .

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.