Thursday, 24 May 2018


Quite simply, one of the most important ‘foundational understandings’—for karateka (and everyone who practises unarmed martial arts of self-defence)—is ‘the big picture’. That is, where their respective style, or art, sits in context and relevance to the martial arts as a whole. Today I will outline this in relation to Shotokan karate, nonetheless, as I’ve already stated, this article is universally applicative: irrespective of “style”.
Tobi jodan shihon nukite doji ni haiwan nagashi uke.

Before I begin, I’d like to explain ‘why’ I’ve written this article… Well, the reason is "that the vast majority of people practising karate, and/or other martial arts do not have this ‘big picture’ or are insufficiently keeping it in mind". Either way, this inevitably results in poor training plans especially for senior practitioners (like ‘maps with errors on them’ or reading a map ‘the wrong way around’); consequently, optimum results cannot be achieved and, more often than not, the objectives become blurred or even lost altogether. This undermines, well… Everything, in one’s training.

Part One: The myth of ‘Karate vs. Weapons’

One of the biggest loads of trot is that karateka used their bare-handed skills to defeat bushi, the samurai warriors, of feudal Japan.

The first thing that many think of is, of course, karate verses a katana; however, one must also take into consideration that the Chinese introduced firearms into Japan during the 13th Century; furthermore, the Portuguese introduced their guns in 1543. 1543 is a particularly important year as it apparently spurred a mass production of firearms throughout Japan by the samurai clans.


The Satsuma clan conquered the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa) in 1609. Needless to say, it is ridiculous to conceive, let alone believe, that karate developed so that “…the unarmed people of Okinawa could defeat gun toting, sword wielding and armour covered professional warriors”.

It is clear that the samurai, and all other warriors/armies spanning history provide an obvious understanding of where karate sits (and other unarmed fighting arts) — within the broad category of MARTIAL ARTS.

Part Two: Unarmed Martial Arts are ‘the last resort’ for the COMPLETE MARTIAL ARTIST

Imagine any army going to war with just their unarmed fighting skills? Imagine that here now, in 2018. Now imagine it one hundred years ago; a thousand years ago; five thousand years ago… Unambiguously, it is an utterly ridiculous notion. Literally suicidal, yet many still blindly believe and claim this about karate... Just return your mind to 'Karate vs. the Samurai Sword'. Anyone who claims this is living outside of reality.

The key point to keep in mind is that all martial arts are primarily based on ‘the use of tools/technology’—namely the historically ever-advancing weapons to subdue and/or kill the opponents.

Therefore, warriors spent the majority of their time honing skills with the most advanced/most effective weapons available to them)(at any give time in human history). In this way, there is a direct parallel between the contemporary jet fighter pilot and the Satsuma Clan warrior. The pilot practises hard to optimise their fighters weapon systems, employ various defence strategies, and so forth. Just as the samurai warrior would practise firing his musket, swordsmanship and the like.

Unarmed fighting arts, like karate, are—and have always been—the last resort in combat. The very last resort! If one is going to defend themselves or attack someone else, if deadly serious, “ …a tool or tools to do so has always been the first option”. It is when ‘caught off guard’ (without holding a weapon), or when one’s weapon(s) is/are lost (or unusable) that "...unarmed fighting skills are used for survival".

Obviously, for the majority of people around the world, unarmed self-defence is `the default situation`, as in daily life we do not walk around with guns, blades and so on. Moreover, and needless to say, in most contemporary societies, carrying of any concealed or unconcealed weapons is illegal.

To reiterate… The ‘big picture’ of martial arts is battle/mortal combat; that is, the generic term of 'martial arts' is literally ‘the arts of war’. I am sorry to say this, but in this present day, the skilled application of, say, nuclear and hypersonic weapons (and God knows what else) are the top end of the martial arts. Whilst, the skilled application of unarmed fighting arts—including karate—are at the bottom end: last resort for defence and attack. It is important for karateka to fully understand this… ALL UNARMED MARTIAL ARTS ARE INCOMPLETE MARTIAL ARTS and, throughout documented human history, always have been. Studying old weapons, such as Japanese kobudo, is fine but also incomplete. A complete martial artist is an individual who is first and fore-most highly skilled in the most sophisticated weapons of the day and age they exist in; furthermore, blades and other weapons, and also highly competent in 'last resort' unarmed fighting techniques. Based on this `real criteria`, the complete martial artist can best be profiled as someone like a US Navy Seal or British SAS member.

Part Three: Karate in context with other martial arts

Some people claim that one unarmed martial art (or one style) is better than others. Yet others claim that ‘the best style is to have no style’. While I am by no means claiming — “...that karate, and more specifically ‘Shotokan’, is ‘the best’”— I’d like to make one statement. The reason I have stuck with Shotokan for so many years is, “….when it is practised properly as budo/bujutsu, it really is second to none” (in the context of unarmed civilian self-defence). Otherwise I would have switched styles!! Yes, there are many other karate styles and unarmed martial arts, that are equally as good, but when properly practised "Shotokan is as good as anything else".

This where I`d like to state another misunderstanding that many people claim; “...traditional karate is outdated”. They cite that competitive ring fighting arts are superior; for example, western boxing and Olympic wrestling, Thai boxing, jujitsu, judo etc… However, their base of understanding is wrong as, again, they are viewing the martial arts out of context; that is, they are not recognising the aforementioned ‘big picture—of where unarmed fighting arts sit—within the martial arts in their entirity’.

Part Four:  My life experience - fighting outside the dojo

Those who know me, know that I have experienced many years in the security industry and experienced many-many real fights including situations involving weapons. My life has been in danger many times. I built up from being a doorman to doing personal protection. Eventually I got out for my wife and my life. I know, nice poetry. Shakespeare in the making. Honestly, throughout that time I never ‘seriously started’ a fight. I have always kept things in the Shotokan context, that is, `been defensive and then counteroffensive`. That is not only because ‘starting fights is obviously wrong’, but because that is `the physical strategy’ of the martial art I have practised all my life. Morals aside, to go outside of this ‘overarching Karate strategy’ naturally takes the karateka away from their technical advantage point.

In sum, Shotokan has never failed me in my civilian context; however, that doesn’t come automatically/without conscientious effort. One must train Shotokan in a realistic free style context; that is, specifically focused on developing effective defensive and counteroffensive techniques for real world self-defence. This requires certain elements, which must be trained together; namely, (1) standard Shotokan training—what I term as ‘the physical and technical base’; (2) full contact impact work with ‘karate techniques’ (for example, not degenerating into some pseudo form of kickboxing) —you must train to impact as hard as possible, as accurately as possible, and as explosively as possible; (3) proper practise of kata application/fighting principles against typical street style attacks; and (4) the regular engagement in non compliant jissen-kumite (actual fighting) practise.

The two other training elements I have not mentioned are: (5) psychological strength/control needed for self defence; and also (6) supplementary ‘body conditioning’, both of which are obviously utterly essential (if one is not naturally very strong in these domains).


Keep in mind that Karate, and unarmed fighting in general, has always been the last resort in the martial arts (arts of war). Through history, the arts of unarmed fighting have been employed once the weapons were gone or unusable. Indeed, for the majority of you, reading this article, unarmed fighting arts will be ‘your default primary form of self-defence’, unless you live in a country where concealed weapons are permitted, or the laws are limited.

Taken as a whole, Shotokan karate when trained properly, is ideal for civilian self- protection. Sadly, however, the way most Shotokan karate is trained (if everyone is completely honest), offers very little, insofar as self-defence is concerned. This is because the focus is primarily on attaining grades, winning medals and technical  innovation. While these goals are great, and can be highly motivational, the best karate is to return to a primary focus on civilian self-defence. All the other aspects, from there, will correctly fall into place. This is the correct approach to very powerful, effective, and from a 'martial arts perspective', beautiful karate.

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2018).

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