An introduction to Karate

A beginner’s guide


What is Karate?

Karate (translated as ‘empty hand’) is an ancient method of unarmed fighting with a moral warrior code emphasising punching, striking and kicking. It was developed on the Island of Okinawa (now part of Japan) by fusing local fighting skills with techniques from near-by China. It was practised as an art of self-defence by a small elite group who closely guarded their methods, only passing them on to a few trusted students.

But in the early 1900s karate was introduced into Okinawan schools and masters, like the founder of the Shotokan style, Gichin Funakoshi, later took it to mainland Japan where it quickly became established alongside traditional Japanese martial arts such as Judo and Kendo (sword-fighting).

The art spread as a strict, disciplined way of life. Later a new type of sparring was developed to allow safe competitive fighting where blows were pulled short of contact to avoid injury. This new sporting side greatly enhanced karate’s appeal and from the 1950s it spread rapidly around the world as the main Japanese karate organisations sent senior instructors abroad to teach. Millions of men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds now practice Karate and clubs compete in national and international tournaments. But many karate styles like Shotokan still emphasise the traditional moral codes, ways of training and self-defence techniques developed by the masters of past centuries.


What training consists of

Training in traditional Shotokan karate is based around three essential elements: kihon (basics), kata and kumite (sparring).

Kihon or basics are the building block techniques of how to punch, strike and kick; how to block or parry attacks and how to put different combinations of all these together. Throws and take-downs are also included. These central techniques are continually drilled until they are second nature, honing and disciplining the body. Even highly-accomplished black belts continue to do regular basics training.

Kata are set combinations of movements, lasting around a minute each, which are sequences of fighting techniques done with an imagined opponent or opponents in mind. They were developed by past karate masters to record their methods and principles and most are hundreds of years old and hold the ‘secrets’ of the ancient art of karate, like a living textbook.

There are 26 different ones in the Shotokan style which are progressively taught to students as they become more experienced. The different fighting skills within the kata are also practiced separately with an opponent for self-defence.

Kumite, or sparring, is practicing to fight an opponent, either in a sporting tournament with set rules and a referee or in a self-defence situation. Students learn the skills and principles through structured exercises using training partners as opponents.

SKCE classes are always based around these three essential elements of kihon, kata and kumite and as training progresses the level of complexity and skill taught in each area increases.

A typical training session will nearly always begin with warm up exercises and stretching to get the body ready for training. Body strengthening and breathing exercises are also taught.

Specialist training to prepare for competition fighting or kata performance is offered for those wanting to enter tournaments.


Dojo etiquette

Sessions always begin and end with formal bows of respect. Strict etiquette, behaviour and discipline is required at all times. Jewellery should be either removed or taped over in the dojo as it can cause injury.

Training is often split into junior and adult sessions but may be mixed.


The belt grading system

Karate uses a system of different coloured belts awarded for the different levels of skill and development attained by students. There is a syllabus with regular exams – or gradings – where students demonstrate their ability in the three essential areas of kihon, kata and kumite.

There are nine different grades from white (beginners) to black belt. However, gaining a black belt is regarded as just having learnt the essentials! There are up to 10 black belt levels. Training at least twice a week is recommended to make steady progress with a black belt taking 3/4 or more years to achieve.


What you get out of Karate

Fitness – Karate training develops a high degree of strength, endurance, flexibility and co-ordination

Confidence – Karate trains the mind as well as the body by improving concentration, discipline, determination and confidence. Students often find karate helps them in other areas of their lives such as work and study

Self-defence – Karate was originally designed as a system of personal self defence and students learn effective methods to protect themselves if attacked within a strict moral code based on the important philosophy of ‘no first attack’

Competitive sport – Modern sparring allows karate students to use their fighting skills to safely compete against each other. Kata are also performed competitively. There are numerous opportunities to take part in tournaments around the country and even abroad

Social network – A karate club is a ‘family’ where you can make friends and enjoy social occasions. Karate is now a world-wide fraternity and SKCE is very much part of this with strong links to clubs around the UK and abroad. Senior instructors, from around the globe including Japan, are invited to teach special courses.

An art – Karate has a long and proud history. Its traditions and techniques have been passed from generation to generation and constantly refined not only as a method of fighting but also as physical culture. A central idea of training is to strive for perfection. Anyone watching a karate demonstration cannot fail to appreciate the skill and artistry, some would say beauty, involved.

A way of life – Karate can be much more than simply a sport, martial art or physical activity. It is not religious, but with its strict moral code and encouragement of mental development it can become a way of life for many. Its emphasis on constant individual improvement means there is always something to strive for. Certainly karate can be enjoyed into old age and can help enjoyment of a healthy and long life. Many past masters lived to ripe old ages, training every day into their 80s.

Karate is simultaneously a form of fitness training, a way of building confidence, a competitive sport, an effective form of self-defence, a social network, an art and a way of life…