Is Karate Really For Everybody?

Written by David Gomez
Edited by Mark Groenewold (visit his site at:

After studying Shotokan Karate for the last 24 years and teaching karate
for the last 15 years (which in the Shotokan world is not very long),
I've seen a wide cross section of people who have taken an interest in karate.
Some as young as 4 years old and others well into their late 50's or early 60's.
Boys, girls, men and women, we live in an era where karate presently
attracts everyone. Gone are the early days where, at least in the western
hemisphere (specifically the United States), only young men were
interested in the "deadly" art of karate.

In the last 40 plus years, what happened in the mind of the masses,
specifically in women, that changed the perception that the "deadly" art
of karate was not only for men? Why is karate presently appealing to a
larger populous when at one time it did not? Why is the image of karate,
in the western hemisphere, so very different today than during the
pioneer days of karate? Does this new image present karate as nothing
more than a sport? Is it art? Is it martial? Is it a martial art? More
importantly, is karate really for everybody?

Men and Women in the Dojo-Is Karate Really for Women?
I want to first address women. Is karate really for women? During the
1970's when I trained with Butta Sensei, the dojo was a male dominated
environment. During that time I can only recall training with two women.
The dojo was lined with men, but women were very scarce. I remember
thinking that these women must be, in some way, less feminine. I admit
my thinking was extremely narrow and naive, but I'd venture to say, at
least during that time, all the men in our dojo felt this way. The
unspoken rule was 'no children, no women.' How wrong we (I) were (was)!

In the dojo, we treated the women just like the men. We made no
exceptions for them when it came to training, kata practice or sparring!
As these women became better skilled, and other women joined the ranks,
we, the men, learned how narrow and naive our thinking had been. Some of
the women moved on to achieve greatness and have become leaders in
today's karate community.

I mention my (our) misplaced perception of women in the dojo only to say
this . . . we saw karate as a means of studying the moment between
defending ourselves or giving up. A training experience for a time you
hope never comes, fight or die. This was the mind-set we had in those
days, if you can't run, train to fight so you don't die. How silly to
think this mind set was only for men, it's for everyone! In Butta
Sensei's dojo, karate was about the here and now, life and death. It
didn't matter if you were a man or a women, the training was the same.

However, since that time, sports science has taught us better ways to
eat and train for optimum mental and physical performance. And yes, for
those of you who haven't noticed, there are differences between men and
women that need to be addressed from a stand point of body dynamics
related to training. These facts, coupled with the increase of highly
skilled women in karate, has given both sexes an even participation
factor in the world of karate. If in fact scientific improvements don't
redirect the dojo's intent, namely training to deal with the here and
now, life and death, then these additions to instruction among the sexes
are invaluable.

Unfortunately, to some extent, these great gains have also had a
negative effect to the karate world at large. More and more clubs have
watered down the training because of the increase of women at the dojo.
How wrong this is. I agree that modern science should be incorporated
into the proven methods that have worked in the dojo for years, but not
at the cost of presenting a less than maximum result in training. The
here and now, life and death, plays no favorites.

So, is karate really for women, of course it is. But not at the expense
of some of the watered down training regiments we presently see in some
clubs and organizations. A false sense of security is no security at all.

Karate Presently Appeals to a Large Populous-Why?
I can't rent or go to a movie, watch one of the newer television
cartoons, without seeing some type of martial art influencing the story
line (and I won't even attempt reviewing the popularity of martial arts
in video or computer games). Inevitably, the hero or villain are karate
experts that have some type of mystical powers, can scale walls or avoid
bullets by jumping at trampoline heights (I don't know anyone that has
mystical powers, can avoid bullets or scale a wall like a spider due to
a study in any martial art). But, with all that said, the influence of
various visual media to the general populous has, without a doubt,
presented karate as an appealing activity to engage in.

It doesn't take a government granted study to see how much exposure,
albeit presented in such a misinformed fashion, karate in movies,
television, cartoons and games, has on the general populous today (even
on a global level). All these things considered, it's easy to see why,
presently, there is such a great interest and appeal in karate to people
of all ages. Was it always this way? . . . no!

The Image of Karate-Was It So Different Back In the Day?
The images of karate in the pre-movie, pre-television and pre-video game
era did not, and probably still won't, generally speaking, appeal to the
masses. I remember Dalke Sensei once telling me,

"David, after an evening of sparring, occasionally there would be blood
on my gi. I couldn't begin to tell you who it belong to. We all had
spots of blood on our gi's with cuts and bruises on our bodies by the
end of the night".

Another recollection passed down to me from Butta Sensei also paints a
less than appealing picture,

"David, before I started karate, I had already studied Judo for quite
some time. In those days we just paired up and had a go at trying to
throw or restrain each other. There was a lot less instruction and a lot
more of the "learn as you go" principle practiced on the Judo mat. Yeah,
they (his Judo instructors) taught us how to fall and they showed us a
few basic take downs, but for the most part, we learned by taking a
chance at dumping, rather than getting slam dunked, by someone more senior.

One night I squared off with the clubs senior student. Before I could
grab his lapel, he reversed punched me. I doubled over, then he used his
Judo to slam dunk me to the floor. There was a lot more liberty to try
new things on the mat in those days. No one in the club had ever seen a
punch done this way. Most of us didn't even know what karate actually
was. We'd never 'really' seen it.

After the training session I found out that this thing called "karate"
was being taught "unofficially" at the university by a man named O'hara
(a student of Funakoshi but not the same O'hara from the Shotokai and he
was never sent abroad as an instructor). I decided I didn't want to get
hit by a punch again, and if karate worked for my senior, it would work
for me. I have studied karate since that day."

So yes, karate (and judo) was different "back in the day". But I don't
want to be misunderstood. The question of image is being addressed, not
quality of study. I do, however, think we do karate better, faster,
smarter and with greater results in less time now than "back then". But
that's a subject I'll leave for another time.

Would most let little Joey or Mable join the karate clubs of yesteryear?
Some would, but for the most part, no, they wouldn't. So, in reference
to the subject matter at hand, is karate really for everybody, and in
this case children - is this type of training environment appropriate
for children? Again, I say no.

The high contact factor (which in some cases drew blood during
training), and yes I am talking about traditional JKA style karate clubs
of the early western hemisphere days, did not appeal to most men, women,
or children. There was a fraction of the population that enjoyed contact
sparring, but just a fraction. In an effort to get more interest in
karate, the 'non-contact' dojo came into being. As a result of all this,
the outgrowth of the 'non-contact' dojo developed what I believe, to
this day, generates mixed emotions due, in part, at the attempt to make
karate safe for everyone . . . sport karate.

Karate's New Sporty Image- Is Karate Nothing More Than a Sport?
What is a sport? According to Webster's New World Dictionary, sport means:

Sport: a game, competition, requiring bodily exertion (sorry anglers,
fishing doesn't sound like much of a sport - and golfing is also on my
endangered list - this emphasis added by me, David Gomez, not
Webster's), fun, play, a thing joked about. {Colloq. - sporting chance:
a fair or even chance}

Children are great resources when it comes to making fun, a game or
sport out of any activity. This being the case, I asked the 7-12 years
old at the Georgia Karate Academy, "Is getting hit in the nose fun?"
They said no. "How about getting kicked between the legs, getting a
black eye, having a finger, wrist or knee broken?" They said no. If I
were to ask adults these same questions I believe the answer to each of
these questions would still be no!

Karate, before the introduction of competition, was thought to be deadly
if truly used. The idea of making sport out of something designed to be
terminating was a foreign concept to karate prior to the early to mid
1940's. The rules for competition were designed to make karate safe.
Karate was never intended to be used as a game or as an opportunity to
give an opponent a sporting, fair or even chance. On the contrary, the
objective was for defending life and limb by looking for an opening or
weakness and capitalizing on it by terminating your adversary. It's this
type of karate which gave credence to the saying 'one blow one kill' -
this is what I consider an "ippon".

Presently, in the world of competition karate, it seems that competitors
are more concerned with catching/getting a point instead of delivering
an ippon. While the word ippon does translate into English as "one
point", sadly, the term ippon in competition has become synonymous with
meaning only "one point" instead of the deeper intent, one blow one kill.

For the most part, the type of techniques employed in competition today
would probably not prove effective under the pressure of real combat.
The human body is a remarkable entity. It can absorb and endure under
the punishment of a severe beating. A boxing match that goes 10 rounds
proves that (by the way, boxers don't train to terminate the opponent,
just knock them out - karateka should be training for a terminating
"ippon"- very different than boxing).

A well placed technique (an ippon) should drop an opponent permanently.
Does this sound like sport? I don't think so, however . . . competition
karate, sport karate, does have a place in the world of sporting events.
We can make 'sport' of karate, but there is nothing actually 'sporting'
about real karate (self defense).

Over the years I've seen a watering down of what the principle of
"ippon" means in a karate competition. It use to be that opponents
almost always starred at each other for what seemed like an eternity
(but was only really for a few seconds), and with the twitch of a
muscle, both competitors were lancing at each other with all they had in
one technique. It was taking the delivery of a karate technique to the
edge of reality without actually terminating an opponent. This mode of
competition seems to foster the principle of "ippon" in a much purer
way. I will agree these engagements were not as smooth and pretty to
watch as some of the sports karate competitions of today. But if you got
hit with a kick or punch, you got hit with tremendous impact yet with
control. This seems much more true to the concept of "ippon".

With all this said, we can make "sport" of karate and indeed karate does
have a sporty new image. But in it's purest form, karate is not a sport
at all.

Is Karate Art?
Creativity, skill or its application, any craft or its principles,
sometimes having form or beauty, in a specialize branch of learning, can
be classified/defined as art (as Webster's dictionary will attest to).
It's simple to understand these ideals, this definition of art, when we
speak of painting or sculpture. But is karate art? Let's put karate to
the test.

Way back in time (how far back no one can say with any certainty but I'd
venture to say since the beginning of time) it became apparent that bad
things (can) happen to good people. This truth gave birth to self
defense in a variety of methods (lumped together we now call this
variety 'martial arts'). The martial arts were (and are) a practical and
creative solution to unarmed and armed self defense. At some point
someone had to figure out how to creatively set up a method of
transferring this self defense information. It seems that this
specialized branch of learning, the martial arts (and more specifically
in a modern sense, traditional karate), required principles, skills,
craft and application to move forward.

While skill level from person to person always varies and beauty is
always in the eye of the beholder (some famous painting look like
children's finger painting to me and I've seen kata by karate 'masters'
that look no better than some of my beginning students), it seems that
karate fits the definition and classification as an art. It is a
creative, skill based specialized craft with specific principles of body
dynamics that has form and application. By definition, karate is a form
of art. But can an art be martial in nature?

Is Karate Martial?
By definition, martial is: "of or related to war, warlike". If our goal
is not competition, or catching/getting a point, then the premise
remains, karate is first and foremost for self preservation and has a
martial nature. Some of the secondary benefits may include aerobic
and/or anaerobic work for the heart, stress relief, muscle toning,
muscle limbering and overall well being from a steady training regimen
(exercise). However, what sets it apart from other forms of exercise, or
sports, is that karate has a martial intent.

Football and boxing are activities with lots of intense contact. Anyone
can be severely injured if they're not properly conditioned to sustain
the impact related with these activities. Yet at no time is the intent
in these activities to deliver a terminating blow.

The warlike (martial) intent, karate stresses is unique. We train to
battle as if every fight could be the difference between life and death.
Much like the armed forces of the United States, we train in times of
peace for future periods of war (which we hopes never comes).

So yes, karate as defined thus far is very martial.

Is Karate a Martial Art?
This topic, by far, is the simplest to bridge. Why say in many words
what can be said in just a few. It seems that this specialized branch of
learning, traditional karate, requires working principles, skills, craft
and application. This branch of learning also has a martial intent. By
definition, karate is a martial art and a karateka is an artist, a
martial artist.

Is Karate Really for Everybody?
In my youth it became quickly apparent that I had an affinity for fine
art, life drawing to be exact. I saw the world in terms of shapes,
colors, patterns, and grayscale tones. I always found myself framing all
types of subject matter in my head to draw. I'd attempt to put it all
down on paper with a conté crayon (a conté crayon is kind of a cross
between a pencil and a crayon) or a soft lead number 4 or 6 pencil. Most
children enjoy art as recreation, but for me it was serious business.

I pursued studies in arts through university level. As a student of the
fine arts, I learned that anyone could learn a drawing technique, such
as defining shades of gray to define the 'plains' (the surface area of
any given object) instead of using a line to define where one surface
ended and another started. This technique is simple and anyone can learn
how to do it. But just doing it compared to doing it well are two
different things altogether. I would say this difference separates art
enthusiast from those who have the potential of making beautiful pieces
of art or making a profession out of their art skill.

What does any of this have to do with 'is karate really for everybody?'
Let me tie it together . . . anyone can learn how to deliver a correct
karate technique (punch, block or kick). Not everyone has the natural
ability to do it well. More so, not everyone has the general make up that
allows for a martial mind set.

While in the United States Army, I saw a number of trainees who didn't
make it past the first week in basic training. The shortcoming of each
of these trainees had nothing to do with physical inability's. The
pressure of a martial environment was more than they could mentally
handle. To place a person with this inability in a life or death
situation would be much more than they could handle. It would also
endanger anyone they might be with and possibly jeopardize the outcome
of a military mission. This trainee, for whatever reason, cannot be
martial, warlike. I have also seen this mental inability in the dojo
setting. Some people can't adjust to a martial (warlike) mind set and
never get to the edge of reality when it comes to sparring. I wonder how
this individual would react if his or her life were threatened in the
K-Mart parking lot?

At some point, sparring must enter the training experience of a karate
student. The beginning student in a traditional karate dojo is generally
prevented from sparring for the most obvious reason, lack of technical
skill. What new students usually fail to understand is that not only is
the technical aspect of their ability preventing them from sparring, but
the development of a martial intent is also missing. This is one of the
reasons why the dojo has a system of conduct, etiquette, that is
systematic and martial in nature.

I understand that not everyone wants to be a modern day warrior. Some
people want to do karate for fun, exercise, recreation, and yes, even
for sport. However, examining karate, as I have been to this point, in a
pure sense, the martial intent is a necessary layer in your training if
a life and death premise is to be maintained.

Is there a place for everybody in karate, yes . . . but karate is not
for everybody. Some will train for sport, others for exercise and
health, but for those who train for the sake of life and limb, no,
karate is definitely not for everybody.

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