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Budo Karate -- Life And Death

My good friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata, often speaks and writes about Karate as a form of budo. When I think about budo, I think about the Japanese martial arts, such as Kendo, Judo, Aikido, etc. So when Nakata Sensei mentioned Karate as budo, I have always thought that he meant that Karate is a form of Japanese martial art.

I generally disagree with this. Karate may be an Okinawan martial art that has been made to fit within the Japanese idea of budo, or martial art. But fundamentally, Karate is an Okinawan martial art with its strongest influences from China, not Japan. Thus, Karate is not a form of budo, except to the extent that it has been modified to become so. In Nakata Sensei's case, he practices one of the original forms of Okinawan Karate, Chibana Shorin-Ryu.

Karate was introduced to mainland Japan in the 1920s. Before that time, and particularly before the Ryukyu kingdom was abolished and Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan in 1879, the Karate masters in Okinawa did not try to characterize Karate as budo. Karate was the martial art of the Ryukyu kingdom. But once the Kingdom was abolished and Karate spread to mainland Japan, it was important to make Karate "fit" into budo. Otherwise, there was a real risk that Okinawan Karate would either disappear or be replaced by the new "Japanese" version. Even in Okinawa at the turn of the century (1900), Kendo and Judo were the most widely practiced martial arts -- not Karate.

But I have recently rethought what Nakata Sensei says about budo. I do not think that he means that Karate is a Japanese martial art. I think he means that Karate is "life and death," which is the essence of budo.

I know many Karate students and instructors. I'm sure that you do too. How many people can you think of who practice Karate as "life and death?" This means that in each and every technique, your life is on the line. There is no second chance. You will either live or die. There is no tie or disqualification. You are not worried about getting injured -- you are confronted with death.

When Nakata Sensei uses Karate, it is life or death. Either he will live and the attacker will die, or he will die and the attacker will live. Nakata Sensei is comfortable with this. He is prepared for it. I do not think that most attackers would feel the same way.

The attacker might be thinking, "I am going to beat you up and take your things." Nakata Sensei is thinking, "You are going to die."

I know that I am putting words into his mouth. I should say that this is what I think that Nakata Sensei is thinking. If I am wrong, it is my fault.

But I am confident that I am correct about his attitude about life and death. Budo means life and death -- not the inclusion in a list of Japanese martial arts.

People in the military face life and death each day of combat. If hand-to-hand combat becomes necessary, there is no room for maybe or hopefully. The soldier's life is on the line, as are the lives of his comrades. It is a matter of kill or be killed. In this situation, Karate would be used to live by killing.

"Budo" Karate is not the same thing as cardiac Karate, kiddy Karate, tournament Karate, sport Karate, movie Karate, or any other Karate. Karate can be practiced many different ways for many different reasons. Each way has its place and audience.

"Budo" Karate is a rare thing. Again, I do not mean "Japanese martial art" Karate -- I mean "life and death" Karate.

My Sensei here in Hawaii describes Karate as a terrible thing. I believe that this is what he is referring to. "Life and death" Karate is truly a terrible thing, something to be avoided unless there is no other option. Think about it. Is tournament Karate terrible? Is sport Karate terrible? Are they terrifying to the bone? I think not.

If it comes to it, are you prepared for "life and death" Karate? Are you training for that?


Charles C. Goodin