Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.

The following article appeared in Issue #4, Spring-Summer 1995 of Furyu: The Budo Journal. Photographs have been omitted. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

What Is Karate?
A Beginner's Guide to Classical Karate

By Charles C. Goodin

Squat lower! Punch harder!" The sensei fired out the commands as the karate students packing the humble dojo strained to keep up with his demanding count. The students gi (training outfits) were soaked and their muscles ached. Many stood in puddles of their own sweat.

But no one gave up, not even the youngest child whose steely eyes bore witness to the intensity of her concentration and determination. "Kiai!" ordered the sensei and the dojo erupted with a thunderous yell which shook the walls. Thus it is in many karate dojo around the world-week after week, year after year, in the endless pursuit of excellence.

The term karate (pronounced KAH-rah-teh, with the "r" sound a rolling combination between an "r" and an "l," not kuh-ROT-tee, or kya-RAH-tee, or any other bizarre pronunciation) literally means "empty (kara) hand (te)" and indicates that the art is typically practiced without weapons. The hands, feet and numerous other parts of the body are systematically trained and conditioned for use in a weaponless form of self-defense.

The general view is that karate was developed in Okinawa during the last several hundred years. According to many authorities, the Okinawans, who were forbidden from carrying or possessing weapons, developed the art to protect themselves against their armed Japanese occupiers. But the Okinawans did not invent the art out of thin air only in response to the occupation of the islands by Japanese samurai. Various Chinese martial artists visited the islands and imparted their form of martial art. Several of the Okinawan kata still bear their names. Many Okinawans also traveled to China to learn. Thus, karate did not develop in a vacuum or only in reaction to Japanese incursion.

Karate spread from Okinawa to Japan in the early part of this century. Many authorities attribute this mainly to Funakoshi Gichin, an Okinawan who unselfishly dedicated his life to establishing karate in Japan. Other Okinawan sensei also eventually established dojo in Japan. Today, Karate dojo can be found throughout the world.

In some ways it is difficult to talk about karate as a whole. There are a myriad of schools and styles which emphasize particular aspects of the art. It is like the proverb about blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. Each of their impressions are correct but incomplete. In addition, precisely what a student can expect to learn will depend upon how many years he has been training and his skill level. Karate is not something which can be mastered in ten easy lessons, a year, three years, or even twenty years! It requires a lifetime of study.

The longer you practice, the more you will recognize the similarities between the various styles rather than the differences. It is said that "all martial arts are different paths leading up the same mountain." One path may begin by the river and the other in the woods but they all lead to the same summit. The same is true within the path of karate. All the styles and schools should lead in the same general direction. My own experience is with Matsubayashi Ryu, a traditional form of Okinawan karate developed by Nagamine Shoshin sensei. It is one of several styles of Shorin Ryu. I also practiced and taught kenpo karate for several years. Kenpo karate is sometimes referred to as Chinese karate.


As with other forms of budo, the starting point of karate is courtesy. "Karate begins and ends with courtesy." A new student will learn the etiquette expected both inside and outside the dojo. There is much more to this than merely bowing, although learning to properly bow is an important part of training. Proper courtesy means sincerely showing the proper respect to others and yourself.


At our dojo, the class is begun by a short period of sitting zazen. This takes place before we exchange bows with the sensei. For the basic classes the sitting period will last a few minutes. Once a week we sit for a thirty minute period. Zazen is also practiced at the end of class.

Zen training is a cornerstone of Matsubayashi Ryu. "Ken Zen ichijo" means "karate and Zen as one." This is much more than a mere saying and zazen is much more than a mere ritual. The attitude which is cultivated during zazen carries over into kata, kumite and the practice in general. If zazen is sitting meditation, Karate is moving meditation.

Warm-Ups and Physical Conditioning

The formal beginning of class is followed by a period of warm-up exercises. At our dojo, this period is usually about 20 minutes during which time we will do a wide variety of stretching exercises, squats, situps, push-ups, jumping, jogging, etc. Warm-up exercises are designed to make the body more flexible, as well as improve the respiration, circulation, stamina and strength. All of these will also improve the student's health.

It is very important to properly prepare the body before beginning karate training. Otherwise, the students will suffer pulled muscles and injuries. For many adults who are out of shape, just mastering these exercises can take several months.


In most people's minds, karate is characterized by punching, blocking and kicking techniques usually performed in a fairly linear manner. A new student will invariably be taught to properly make a fist and punch during his first few classes. Then he will punch and punch and punch!

In time, variations of the basic punch might be taught. The first punch might be at chest level. Later punches might be to the forehead, lower stomach area, to the side, etc. Punches can be done with one or both hands and in combination with a variety of blocks or other movements. Additional techniques will be taught as the student progresses but it is the quality of the technique that counts more than the quantity. Knowing dozens of techniques is useless if you cannot punch correctly. There is saying that "the most advanced techniques are the basics." Other versions of this saying are "there are nothing but basics" and "after basics, basics." I am 37 and still find innumerable faults with my movements every time I practice. I would be so happy to punch right even once! Another saying is "we are all beginners." A godan (fifth degree black belt) in our dojo always emphasizes this. I know he is not saying it out of false humility--he really means it. We are all truly beginners.

The first punches, strikes and blocks will be taught in a stable position such as jigotai-dachi, also known as a horse stance in many styles. It is easiest to learn the basics while stationary. In addition, the low stances will develop leg strength and the balance required for moving basics. Far too many students lazily ignore the importance of such stances and never develop a proper foundation. Consequently, as their upper body becomes stronger they will find themselves stumbling or "floating" through their movements.

Moving Basics

In time, the basic movements will be practiced in non-stationary stances. Students might punch, kick or block their way back and forth and from side to side across the dojo in a variety of stances. At our dojo we refer to this as moving basics or blocking and punching in motion. A karate student must be able to quickly respond to an attack from any direction.


The moving basics can easily be combined into a series of movements called kata. Some kata might be fairly short while others could contain dozens or even a hundred separate movements. Usually the shorter and easier kata are taught first but this is not to say that they are simple or just for beginners. The highest sensei will practice the very same kata!

The kata practiced in various dojo will likely differ, although many of them will be the same if the dojo have the same sensei in their genealogies. The five Pinan kata developed by Itosu Anko in 1905 to teach in Okinawan high schools are thus practiced in Matsubayashi Ryu and also in Shotokan Karate (although taught under the name Heian). It is quite beautiful to watch karateka from around the world practicing the same kata in unison.

There should be no rush to learn all the kata. It is said that students learned only one kata during the first three years of training in some Okinawan dojo. Today, probably six or seven kata will be taught during that time period in traditional dojo. Remember, it is not how much you know but how well you can perform what you know--quality, not quantity. Most sensei will select a single kata to be their signature piece, a kata they perform better than any others. Some students will seek out such sensei for instruction in his favorite kata.


Dead kata refers to movements which are done mechanically. In living kata the student visualizes attackers for each movement. This is enhanced by the practice of bunkai, or pairing off the kata. One student will perform the kata while being attacked by one, two or possibly more students. In this way the meaning of each movement becomes clear.


Kumite or sparring is an important element in Karate training, although the emphasis differs from dojo to dojo. There are prearranged (yakusoku) and free (jiyu) forms of kumite. In prearranged kumite, a pair of students will execute a series of movements. One will attack and the other will block and counter attack. In free form kumite neither student knows what the other will do. Sometimes one will be designated as the attacker and the other as the defender. At other times each student will be free to attack the other.

Kumite is an excellent way to develop proper ma-ai (distance), timing, spontaneity, and the ability to take and receive strikes. Many beginners spend too much effort either trying to hit their opponent or trying not to get hit. Free flowing kumite involving mutual exchanges is far more useful.

Free form kumite is usually reserved for advanced students who have spent several years developing the proper focus, control and mental attitude. It is neither a game nor something to be taken lightly. Great control must be exercised at all times to prevent serious injuries. Points and determining a winner and loser are completely irrelevant. Both participants should learn from the experience and every courtesy should be observed. It should never be allowed to deteriorate into a sideshow brawl.

There is a saying which goes "karate ni sente nashi"--there is no first attack in karate. This is similar to iaido where both swordsmen know that the first to draw is likely to be the first to die. A master swordsman will avoid drawing his sword and will never do so in haste, anger or foolishness.


Various weapons (such as the bo, jo, sai, tuifa or tonfa, nunchaku, etc.) might be taught in advanced karate training. This is typically done after a student has entered the dan (or black belt) levels and is known as kobudo or kobujutsu. Nevertheless, the root of karate is empty handed training. This differs from kendo or iaido, for example, where the use of a weapon is central to the training.

Kobudo can enhance karate movements. The bo, for example, teaches the student to move his body gracefully and properly and the sai increases arm and hand speed and strength.


Many Karate dojo use makiwara to condition the hands and feet for striking. The makiwara is a piece of wood anchored to the ground and extending upwards to about chest height. Rope, leather or other material is attached to the top of the wood to provide a safe striking surface. The makiwara is springy enough to kick back when you punch it. This aids in the development of a clean and strong punch. Heavy bags, weights and other training items may also be used in some dojo.

"Air" karate is an expression referring to training without makiwara or similar devices. Many ill-trained karateka's hands and feet would break if they actually struck an attacker using their full strength.

Tumbling, Throws And Other Techniques

As mentioned earlier, all forms of budo are paths up the same mountain. In the advanced levels the forms begin to resemble each other. Thus it is that advanced karate will include tumbling, throws, joint locks, chokes and other techniques usually associated with judo, aikido,jujutsu and other arts. It will also include flowing and circular movements more typically found in "soft" styles such as gung fu and tai chi ch'uan.

Belts and Ranking

There is a major division in most styles of karate between the kyu (below black belt) and dan (black belt) ranks. It is typical for colored belts to designate the kyu ranks and a black belt to designate the dan ranks. Some dojo use a white belt for all kyu ranking. In any event, the belt system is a relatively modern invention and the least important part of karate.

Comparing belts between different karate dojo is virtually impossible unless they are part of the same organization. Comparing dan levels is also difficult. The traditional system is for there to be ten levels of black belt. There is usually only one tenth degree black belt in a style at any given time. Some modern instructors take this to mean that they instantly become tenth dan when they open their own dojo. Their best friends might instantly become ninth dan. You can figure out the rest.

Most of the sixth dan and higher karate sensei I have met were at least in their fifties or sixties. It is possible for younger individuals with exceptional ability to merit such rank but this is unusual. You should think twice (or three times) if you are considering studying karate under a 20-year-old eighth dan!

If you are already a colored or black belt in one style of karate, you should not wear it when you show up for your first class at a new dojo. It is more polite to inform the new sensei about your background and let him make a decision. Besides, your abilities might not merit a comparable rank in the new style. If possible, it is polite to request a verbal or written referral from your prior sensei to the new dojo. Etiquette is very important at all phases of training.

Reflecting on Karate

In some ways, Karate is like an onion. When you peel the outer layer there are always many more inside. Just when you think you understand a technique you will discover new insights. Your shoulders are too high, your feet are not planted, your focus is too early or too late, your back is crooked, you are not properly using your hips, your breathing is wrong, your ki is weak, your mind is wandering. . . It is always a challenge to learn more and improve yourself.

Over the years karate becomes more and more mental and spiritual. At some point the ability to defend yourself becomes a given. Sensei do not measure themselves by how many men they can defeat but by how well they understand themselves and can impart their understanding to others.

Lastly, karate means nothing unless it translates into your daily life. How do you treat your family and co-workers? Do you show them the same courtesy you display at the dojo? Can you control your temper, keep going when others around you are giving up, lend a hand to those in need? These count infinitely more than trophies, patches, certificates and belts.

After several years as a karate student you might find yourself as an assistant, maybe even the sensei, standing in front of the class yelling, "Squat lower! Punch harder!"

Your students will stand drenched in sweat, inspired by your example to strive with every ounce of their being and become their very best. Such it is and has always been in the empty handed art of karate.

Contact Charles C. Goodin

Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.