Shotokan karate is the most popular style of traditional Japanese karate. Karate means “empty hand” in Japanese. Karate-do means “empty hand way.” The term “empty” is used in the same context as it is in Zen meditation, meaning that the mind of the karateka is in a reflective and clear state and thus free of fear and distraction. As such, through proper training the skilled karateka learns to react with a clear mind and without fear or hesitation in a self-defense or other stressful situation.
Karate was introduced to mainland Japan from Okinawa in 1922 by Master Gichin Funakoshi. Master Funakoshi had studied karate as a young man while living in Okinawa and was a college professor.
Today, karate-do is practiced as a martial art, sport, and proven method of self defense. Like other Japanese martial arts (“budo”), the ultimate aim of karate-do is the perfection of the character of its participants. Through training, karateka learn self-control, mental and physical self-discipline, and the development of highly effective self-defense and fighting techniques. As such, karate training can be an excellent means of attaining and maintaining physical and emotional fitness and self-discipline. Traditional karate training involves basic training (“kihon”), forms (“kata”), and sparring (“kumite”).
Japanese karate-do differs from Korean tae-kwon-do, Chinese wushu or kung-fu, and other martial arts because karate techniques are uniquely focused. This requires them to be performed with full mental concentration, proper speed, power, coordination, breathing, and body connection. A karate technique that is properly focused will have the practitioner’s entire body and mind behind it and it will have great force and effect on the target or opponent if contact is made. Karate techniques include punches, strikes, blocks, kicks, sweeps, throws, joint locks, jumps, etc. Karate competition is popular with many karateka and a number of karate organizations sponsor tournaments. In traditional karate tournaments, however, contact to the face and head is prohibited in kumite matches and all techniques must be properly controlled.
It generally takes three (3) to five (5) years of regular training under a qualified instructor to reach the level of first (1st) degree black belt (“dan”) in traditional Shotokan karate under the SKIF system. At that point, the karateka should have mastered the basics of karate and be ready to begin training at a more advanced level. However, under the SKIF system, karate training is considered a lifelong endeavor for those who wish to keep training. Thus, a practitioner can continue to train throughout his or her life and continue to develop skill, character, self-awareness, and understanding. As such, the first dan is really only a new beginning, and the serious practitioner may go well beyond that level and become a teacher or “sensei” after sufficient training and experience.