Brian Berenbach, Shorinjiryu Kenryukan Karate Assn.

Karate has been popularized in many ways recently. From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, Claude Van Dan and Steven Segal, we are inundated with martial acrobatics on TV and in the movies. Wherever we go we see storefronts advertising Tae Kwan Do and karate as frequently as drive through fast food places. Why the kiddies can even have karate birthday parties now!

In this article I will attempt to clarify some of the misconceptions about karate, its origins, its purpose and its practitioners.

Myth: All that stuff you see on TV and the movies, and all those Tae Kwon Do studios are about Karate.

Fact: Not true. In order for a martial art to be karate it must have a pedigree back to either Japan or Okinawa. Tae Kwon Do, a Korean sport, was introduced as late as the 1950s to the Korean army as a way of training soldiers. Korean immigrants then popularized it in the United States. Sorry to disappoint you, but Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and all the other Chinese martial arts entertainers do Kung Fu, NOT Karate. Karate developed on Okinawa and was an offshoot of Chinese Kung Fu and the indigenous Okinawa Te. The Chinese form was originally developed to allow monks to defend themselves against unarmed muggers. In 1609, the Japanese Satsuma clan invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom with a Shogunate sponsored military force. Weapons were banned and the local population starting with Kung Fu, modified it ultimately into Karate as a way of unarmed defense against heavily armed Samurai warriors. This is why today Chinese martial artists appear to be very light and fast with relatively weak techniques.

Myth: Karate is a fighting sport like kick boxing.

Fact: Karate is a martial art; a complex technical discipline. It originally had absolutely no sport aspects to it and fighting was discouraged because of the risks involved. It was designed for life and death situations, and the techniques were too dangerous to use in a sport environment. After World War II, the Okinawan and Japanese masters were literally starving to death. They opened their doors to the public, and evolved sport fighting as a way of increasing enrollment. Interestingly enough, there is not a single style of Karate that requires tournament combat for promotion. Promotions are based solely on technical competence, and it is possible, although unlikely and not recommended, to go all the way thru black belt ranks without ever having competed in a tournament. It must be remembered that Karate was designed for breaking through armor, and the techniques, when properly applied, can cause serious injury or even death. For this reason, any fighting done at a tournament sponsored by the Shinzen Association is done wearing body armor that cannot be penetrated by the heaviest blow. When I studied in Japan, we rarely sparred. It was just too dangerous and even infrequent sparring resulted in broken arms and legs.

Myth: Karate is for ruffians, teenagers who like to fight and undesirables

Fact: The exact opposite is true. In Japan and Okinawa most of the high-ranking instructors are university professors. Learning goes on past the prime, and the 60 and up crowd can easily participate. Karate is a complex discipline, with both mental and physical aspects to it. The primary mechanism for learning is the Kata, or "form", a set of prearranged moves commonly known as the dance of karate. The idea is the same as that of touch-typing. By practicing combinations over and over, they become automatic in emergency situations. In Shorinjiryu we practice graceful and appealing two person forms called "kumite". In my classes I have a lot of parents who do the two person forms with their children. There are very few activities where parents and their children (8 and up) can participate on an equal footing, Karate is one. I even have had parents who had to formally bow to the children because the children were of higher rank!

Myth: Karate teachers are brutal and beat up their students.

Fact: The karate kid it isn't! Trained (with a pedigree) karate instructors require patience, compassion, and the ability to communicate with people of all ages. People sometimes study karate because they are timid and have anxieties. It is important to nurture such students and encourage them, not have them leave after one lesson. Oh, and don't forget the lawyers waiting to sue!

Myth: Karate encourages aggression and fighting.

Fact: Movies and TV glorify fighting without showing the aftermath. In class students are taught the reality of causing injury in an unsanitized brutally honest way and, afterwards, recognize how fighting is truly a last resort. By performing forms with their partner, and, optionally fighting in a safe, controlled tournament environment, those few individuals who need one can find a positive, safe outlet for expressing themselves. But, Karate as a martial art is mostly technique and forms, while fighting is an afterthought.

Now, all the above having been said, I must still warn the reader that it is caveat emptor! There are a lot of unscrupulous, unlicensed instructors out there ready, willing and able to take advantage of a parent wanting their child to learn self-defense. So, if you are interested in participating in the martial arts, I would suggest that you shop around, take your time, possibly watch a class or two, and… enjoy!

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