About Karate

PhilosophyHistoryKarate vs. Self-DefenseSport Karate vs. Budo KarateHow Karate Affects Your LifeRanking - What do the belts mean?Black BeltsKataKumite

Karate is a BUDO (Japanese martial art) for which the purpose is not to win against an enemy outside of your body but to win against yourself. That means to win against your fear, doubt, indecisiveness and to be surprised by nothing.

People believe that there are limits to the strength of their bodies and minds without really trying hard to overcome the limits. With proper training, the mental and physical barriers can be removed to reveal surprising power. Karate was devised to overcome weaknesses and limitations by bringing out hidden or unnoticed potential.

If karate is used as a method of self-defense, it is very powerful but because it is powerful, mistakes can be disastrous. Therefore, he who practices karate must trust his opponent and must be trusted by his opponent. To be trusted by your opponent, you must show respect to your opponent and always demonstrate your tranquility.

(Copyright 1994, Kioth Karate by S. Sugiyama)

When the idealist and visionary King Shohashi united Okinawa around 400 years ago, he ordered the burning of all weapons. This encouraged peaceful control of the population and prevented armed uprisings. Two hundred years later, the Satsuma clan from the southern Japanese main island of Kyushu, under Lord Shimazu, conquered Okinawa; once again possession of weapons was strictly prohibited. As a result of these consecutive weapon prohibitions, the Okinawan populace developed combat techniques which utilized agricultural implements.

Also during this time Karate began its development there, getting its technical roots from the Chinese mainland. From the beginning of its history, and largely because of its location, Okinawa has been influenced by Chinese culture.

These bare-hand and kicking arts became known as Naha-te, Shuri-te, and Tomari-te based on their place of town of origin. Because of their Chinese roots, these arts were sometimes referred to as “TOW-DE” or “KARA-TE” (TOW or KARA means Chinese and DE and TE mean hand). Sometimes they were referred to as Okinawa-te. These styles evolved out of a need to fight against armed opponents. In contrast to Chinese techniques, Okinawa-te tended to use more fist techniques than open hand techniques. Furthermore, it tended to utilize more straight-lines or linear movements.

An important principle in these Okinawan martial arts involves also the development of large muscles and strongly callused hands and feet, in order to develop kicks and punches that can finish an opponent with one blow. But practitioners did not do much free sparring, believing that if they did free sparring, their strong focus would be weakened by trying to win. They mainly practiced hitting makiwara (a punching board strapped with straw rope) and kata (forms; movements in a set sequence). The use of kata to study and practice probably derived from the Chinese martial arts, which used them extensively.


In the early 1920′s, the venerable Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), a student of the venerable Yasutsune Asato (1827-1906) and Yasutune Itosu (1838-1915), was chosen by the Okinawan Martial Art Society because he was well educated to introduce Karate into mainland Japan. Many of Funakoshi’s concepts were influenced by Japanese culture, especially by Zen Buddhism.

Funakoshi transformed Kara-te from a mere fighting technique of Okinawa to a full-fledged martial art with a spiritual background. He not only taught the physical aspects of Karate, but also instructed his students in the new philosophy of this martial art. Some of his precepts were:

“Karate is not for winning but to build character”

“All Kata of Karate start from a blocking technique because Karate is for defense and not for aggression”

“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles does not prove superior skill; rather, to defeat the enemy without fighting indicates superior skill”

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or in defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants”

The followers of Funakoshi are referred to as Shoto-kan stylists, and after WWII, his students gathered together to form the Japan Karate Association (JKA). Its headquarters was established at the main Dojo in Yotsuya, Tokyo.
What is the difference between karate and self-defense?

When acting in self-defense, you are acting in your own interest. You, yourself, are the subject to be protected. This, of course, is instinctive and easy to do. When practicing a Japanese martial art, somebody else or something greater than yourself is the subject to be protected. This means you must have an altruistic love of others as preached by Christianity, instead of just an egotistical love for yourself. This is the gedatsu of Buddhism, which means “getting out of yourself.”

Which is better?

In fighting (not merely physical competition, but also mental competition such as that in business, school, politics, or other endeavors), if you think first about your own personal safety or well-being you may worry and wonder what to do. Often you cannot make a decision properly or quickly and will miss an opportunity. But if you deny your existence in this world and act for love (your loved ones, country, people, etc.), you will be decisive and able to focus great power. The word karate is derived from “nothingness” (mu) of Zen Buddhism. This “nothingness” is freedom from the psychological obstruction of fear. With this barrier removed, one’s ability to use the physical techniques of karate is greatly improved. Mu is the very essence of karate. Here is an example:

A Hen’s Story

When I was young, chickens were kept in the yard in Japan and were allowed to run around freely. Although the chickens enjoyed their freedom, they also faced danger. Sometimes alley cats would come into the yard and try to eat them for dinner. So whenever I heard the hens cry, I had to run out to chase the cats away. One day I was surprised to see a different situation. One of my hens was chasing after a big alley cat, and the cat was running away panicked with fear. Why did my cowardly hen become so tough? Because, the hen was a mother at that time and had little chicks to protect. The love of her babies made her overcome her fear and risk throwing her life away. From this self-sacrifice, she got the great power to strike back at the alley cat. People are so afraid of losing their lives that they never find them. But when people are willing to die or throw their lives away, they gain life back. From antiquity, Japanese sword masters have taught ken 3 – zen 7 (ken means sword; zen is the zen of Buddhism). This means that techniques are 30% and state of mind 70% of the victory in a fight.

From Kitoh Karate, by S. Sugiyama Copyright 1994.
Sport Karate vs Budo Karate

Karate developed as a self-defense system among those whose weapons had been taken away. Later it was introduced to Japan, mixed with Japanese culture, and became a Budo (Martial art). Currently, karate is practiced all over the world, and championship tournaments are held everywhere. Karate tournaments are of two sorts: Sport Karate and Budo Karate.

Sport Karate is enjoyable in tournament, but there are many people who participate in Budo tournaments. What is the difference? In Sport tournament matches, since the first person accumulating points is the winner, you can think and relax. If you lose a point, there is still a chance to win. In Budo Karate tournaments, you have to think “this is my last chance,” so you must focus everything you have on that one chance.

In Japan there is a famous phrase, “ICHIGO ICHIE,” meaning “one lifetime, one meeting.” Originally it came from the Japanese tea ceremony, meaning that this moment is the only moment and will not come back. At this moment, you are meeting a person for the only time in your life, so use this meeting preciously. So you should devote yourself to doing your best at every moment. Kendo (Japanese sword fighting art) teaches that you should “place yourself at your opponent’s disposal” and attack. This is the last moment of your life, so you should act with everything you have and not regret whatever happens afterward.

Tournaments are a training method, but they are also the culmination of training. The point system may not teach this finality of attitude. If a woman is attacked by a big guy, she mayl only have one chance to defend herself. In any fighting situation, you have to fight like the mother hen protecting her chicks. For these reasons, I recommend the point system for novices, but the Budo system for advanced students.

From Kitoh Karate by S. Sugiyama Copyright 1994.
How Karate Affects Your Life

Each of us has great hidden or unnoticed potential that with proper training can reveal surprising power. Karate is a means by which your physical and mental barriers can be lifted and this potential released. Students of karate learn to coordinate body, mind, and spirit through fighting technique and by striving for a mental state of “nothingness.”

This is part of Zen philosophy. The word karate implies lack of ego and achieving a state where outside influences cannot interrupt or disturb your concentration. This makes it possible to decide and act more quickly and powerfully.

Venerable G. Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate, stated “The ultimate goal of karate does not lie in victory but in the perfection of the character of the participants. Karate is not meant for street fighting.

The principles you learn while training apply to every other area of life. Here is an observation of mine:

Pistol shooting is one of my hobbies. One challenge on the pistol range is to cut a business card turned sideways in half from 50 feet with one bullet. One day, after watching me shoot business cards this way, one of my students, a brown belt, wanted to try it. Pistol shooters know that it can be very difficult for a new shooter to hit even an 8 X 10 inch target from this distance. But even though it was only his third day of shooting, he cut the small card in half on his fifth shot. I couldn’t believe it. The next week, I took another student, this time a black belt, to the shooting range. Although he had never shot before, he cut a business card in two on his very first day. A few days later, I invited a yellow belt to try. Even he succeeded in splitting the card on his first day. In each case, it took no more than 12 rounds.

I believe this success comes from my method of teaching pistol shooting which is based on the principles of karate. I encourage my students to reach a state of “nothingness” where the mind is relaxed and undisturbed by external forces. Then I tell them to believe the barrel of the gun is 50 feet long and its nose is touching the target. There is no way the bullet can go anywhere but right through the card.

The mentality learned in karate is what made it simple for these students to achieve the task so easily.

I include this example here to illustrate one of countless way karate training can affect your life. You will take the lessons of karate with you everywhere. Life usually provides ample opportunity to put these lessons to use.
Ranking – what do the belts mean?

The venerable Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, developed the present ranking system. It expressed rank as a number so as to give the practitioner motivation to advance further. Kendo, Karate, Aikido, and other Japanese martial arts followed this idea.

In this ranking system, novices start as white belts and achieve various colored belts; black belt ranking is eventually awarded to those who have mastered the basics. A colored belt system is very good for the instructor; it allows judgment on sight of the right degree of correction for a given student.

In each martial art there are several to hundreds of different styles. The most popular and world-wide styles of Karate are Shoto-kan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu and Wado-ryu. Hundreds of derivative styles exist if one includes the styles who have only a few local schools. Even the largest style, Shoto-kan, is divided into many different groups.

Do you think that an average American high school student can transfer into a Japanese high school at the same grade level? The probable answer is no. In the Japanese school system, the average student completes calculus, geometry and other subjects before graduating from middle school; in America, they are only first encountered in high school. On the other hand, normal Japanese students cannot do well in America because they learn by rote memorization, and they have not been trained to learn by the time consuming task of collecting and synthesizing of information.

The same question applies to rank in different schools of karate. A colored belt of one style is not equivalent to the same color belt in another style, and so cannot be transferred. Even if the two styles are using the same color for the same rank, what one style does at a particular rank may not be the same as is done in another style.

If one attends a reputable dojo, sometimes one can see a person who has been absent for a while wearing a white belt by his or her own choice, even though he or she had previously earned some rank. This indicates humility and willingness to study from the beginning. This kind of person is usually very promising because he or she is ready to observe clearly and learn new things.

From Kitoh Karate, by S. Sugiyama, Copyright 1994.
Black Belts

It was the venerable Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, who first used the black belt ranking in martial arts. When one masters the fundamentals of techniques, one can be promoted to the first degree black belt rank. One can be promoted up to the fourth degree based on technical excellence. And by one’s maturity of technique and dedication to the art, one can be promoted to the degrees of fifth and higher. The highest rank, 9th degree, is only given after one has studied the art throughout one’s life and achieved maturity (over 60 or 70 years old).

There is a famous story that Kano issued a 10th degree black belt to one of his deceased students, saying “you are now in another world.” Since then among martial arts practitioners, it is said that 10th degree means “you are going to another world.”

It is quite unfortunate that there are some people promoted to 10th degree black belt while still in this world. The worst ones are those promoted while they are still young, sometimes before their 50′s. In these cases, we have to think that their arts are already mastered by them and there is no more room for improvement. In other words, they have stagnated while in this world. In essence, to be stagnated means that one is dead in the art. Humility, thinking that one is never finished with learning or studying, is one of the important aspects of maturity in the Japanese sense.

From Kitoh Karate by S. Sugiyama, copyright 1994.
What is Kata?

A Kata is a series of defensive and offensive moves against imaginary attacks from different directions. Also, a Kata includes many moves for physical exercise and for connection to subsequent moves rather than for actual applications.

Why do you practice Kata?

Because of the tension of fighting, it is difficult to maintain tranquility in order to examine and understand the details of techniques during sparring. Therefore, Kata are made for internal study as well as for studying the details of the external movements.

What should you study (or show) in the performance of Kata?

The five elements of kata:

  • SHIN, imperturbable mental control
  • KI, the mental energy which is extended outward to infinity
  • RYOKU, the techniques which are focused and supported throughout the body
  • Smoothness in coordination
  • Proper rhythm of the movements

Excerpt from 25 Shotokan Kata by S. Sugiyama, copyright 1984.


There are many types of Kumite (sparring) practice. In order to break Kumite into smaller fundamentals, Sugiyama Sensei has developed several kumite-gata. These kumite-gata allow the karate student to focus on a specific aspect of their Kumite, in a controlled environment. Students learn to control their opponent’s timing and distance, and to use these factors effectively in a sparring situation. Concepts include:

  • Deai (tai-no-sen): attacking on your opponents physical commitment to attack
  • Deai (sen-no-sen): attacking upon your opponents mental commitment to attack
  • Mikiri (go-no-sen): evading, and then attacking