what is karate

The word 'Karate' means 'empty hand', and is a martial art/science that combines many of the ideas of art and physical science. In karate we have to learn that there is more than one way to learn and remember. We are used to learning mentally and remembering the same way. In Karate, however, we must train our bodies to do the techniques properly and then to remember to do them correctly. This is called muscle memory, and it is this form of memory that is crucial to the proper performing of Karate technique.

We invest years in learning the techniques and developing muscle memory so that when the time comes to use our art to defend ourselves, we don't need to think about it, but simply respond. We train in the hopes of never using our art, but our bodies and minds are always prepared to do what is necessary to protect ourselves should the need arise.

Karate encompasses five main areas of training. These are: kata, kihon, kihon kumite, jiyu kumite, and kobudo.


The word 'kata' means 'form'. Practicing kata is a way to train to fight without a partner. Kata is a method of training wherein you imagine that you are fighting a series of opponents. You imagine their attack and then you respond with the predetermined counter or attack. There are 26 Shotokan kata and in Kihaku-ha Shotokan we have added 4 others to the curriculum. Kata can be performed in a mental state of fighting or simply by rote. The difference in your mindset while performing kata will result in training you to fight or perhaps dance. While studying/performing kata, generally we imagine the most basic attack/response application. This is called bunkai. Many other applications can be utilized from these basic attack/response situations and this is called oyo. Oyo is the secret technique behind the basic application.


Kihon are basic techniques. Generally, kihon is performed in a more or less straight line up and down the dojo floor. As the skill level of the student improves the kihon increases in difficulty by adding more techniques, combinations, and direction changes. Practicing kihon is a way to learn to focus your strikes in a precise location and manner for maximum effectiveness.

Kihon Kumite

Kihon Kumite is basic sparring. In basic sparring we have a tori (attacker) and an ukete (defender). Tori declares his target and technique. Ukete agrees to this attack. Tori attacks, ukete defends or defends and counterattacks. Kihon kumite is gohon (5 step), sambon (3 step), ippon (1 step), or jiyu ippon (freestyle and fighting timing 1 step). Kihon kumite helps us to learn a great deal about speed, distance, timing, power, and the way different attacks appear as they are coming at you.

Jiyu Kumite

Jiyu kumite is free sparring. Free sparring is fighting for points, not to injure your opponent. Kumite is where we apply the things we have learned in kata, kihon, and kihon kumite, in order to hone those individual concepts into a flowing, organic state.


Kobudo means 'Ancient Weapon Way', and encompasses training with traditional Japanese and Okinawin weapons. We train with weapons the same way we do in Karate, using the 4 categories above. The main weapons we train with are the bo (staff), and nunchaku (nunchucks [2 sticks fastened together end to end with a rope or chain). Other Okinawin weapons include the tonfa (a wooden crank similar to a police billy club), kama (small hand held scythe), sai (small hand held pitchfork with an extended middle tine), and katana (sword). The key to Kobudo is to remember that the weapon is merely an extension of your body. This means that if you twist your wrist when you punch, you will twist your wrist when you punch with a bo or other weapon. Kobudo helps us to remember to finish our techniques.

These are the mechanics of karate. The essence of karate is your individual search for growth, development, enlightenment, that one perfectly applied technique. Karate is a journey of discovery and becoming. So much of karate can be applied to real life, that at times the lines between them become very blurry.

When I speak of growth, I'm speaking about not only about physical growth but, technical growth as well. We grow up and older and our bodies change. We adapt our techniques and style to what we are most capable of and comfortable with. Technical growth is the increasing mastery of kihon.

When I speak of development, I'm speaking about physical and mental mastery of kihon and kata. Almost everything we needed to learn to be successful in karate, we learned our very first day. Since that time, we have been working towards mastery of those first few techniques that we learned. We improve our understanding and ability to apply the proper speed, timing, and power. Not only do we learn how, we also learn when.

The enlightenment that I'm talking about doesn't necessarily have to be spiritual, although it can be as well. It is your understanding of karate, life, and love. Sometimes we are training and the light bulbs in our minds go on and then we understand what Shihan was talking about all of those times. Those were the times when he said "do it this way" and we said "now I understand". These are some of the most precious moments, because we see some of the fruits of our labor.

The search for that one perfectly applied technique is very similar to the golfer who is trying to hit a hole in one. There are moments that we respond to a certain situation, whether it is in the dojo or on the street, and time slows down and we can almost watch ourselves. The moment where you deliver a perfect strike, block, or even fall properly, and know that is was perfect. You will want to relive that moment over and over again because it was perfect. Your search for that moment, all of your efforts, seem as nothing compared to that fleeting moment of perfection. It is in the aftermath of these moments that your spirit will soar and sing.

Karate is a journey of discovery, who or what am I? Who or what will I become? In this life, we get to decide every day, who will I be today. Training forces you to test and push your limits in many ways. How much effort will I invest today? Will I come back to class tomorrow? Is it worth it? What am I doing here? I have it now. Oops, I lost it. Will I get it back? What will be my biggest challenge today? I can face anything for an hour or a day. Bring it on. No one else will understand why I do this. This is the one thing I get to do only for me. I will do my best, because it is only for me. These are what karate means to me.

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