an unfeasibly short introduction to karate

the founder of shotokan karatewhere does one start with an introduction to karate? from the things we all know, such as that karate comes from japan? unfortunately, of course, it doesn't really come from japan, and lots of the ideas that we have about karate turn out to be untrue. karate is about hitting people? sorry, wrong again.

the history of karate is interesting as a story, and the relation of karate to other martial arts is not only fascinating but also absolutely fundamental. if karate came to japan from okinawa, and to okinawa from china, then where is the distinction between kung-fu and karate to be drawn? or, to throw the cat among the pigeons, is it really necessary to separate them? one could easily choose, as many do, choose the founding of the JKA in the 1940s as the 'birth' of karate, or instead one could choose the teaching of sakukawa in the early 1800s; the gradual evolution and formalisation of modern 'karate' as a distinct martial art makes it difficult to say when it began as such, and since the splintering of the JKA and the export of karate around the world what is meant by 'karate' is still changing today. some people oppose this change, and some welcome it, and there is no shortage of debate on the subject. and while there are many accounts of the origins of karate to be found on karate websites, most of them are drastically summarised for the sake of space and maintaining visitor interest. for the attentive reader, the wikipedia article is well-linked and provides an excellent starting point.

the name shotokan, as a style of karate (of which there are many), refers to the pen-name of the founder, gichin funakoshi (pictured above; funakoshi's portrait often hangs in dojos), who is generally credited with bringing karate to the main islands of japan. shoto-kan can be translated as "shoto's place", with shoto generally translated to mean 'wind in the pines'.

the best introduction to karate, of course, would be the experience of studying karate for oneself; all good clubs will be more than happy to have you along to watch what they do, and to join in if you choose. karate is practiced by ordinary people, and there is no mystery or magic to it. to fully describe karate, as with learning everything within the art, would take a lifetime. much better to get involved and draw your own conclusions.

a note about the name 'kenmei'

following a good ten years of training in shotokan, and reaching a certain level of competence (though with much still left to conquer), i had been looking to start a club where i hoped to pass on karate to people in the way it was given to me. i had been a nomad for most of my professional career, working on contracts that would often require relocating, so it was difficult to justify starting a club that probably wouldn't last. and while it was great to train with different people, including the JKA and WTKO, and get their flavours of karate, it feels nice to finally have some sort of 'home'.

the name kenmei does have a literal and philosophical meaning; the characters making kenmei, appearing in the club logo, can be translated as 'wisdom'. when you first step up to teach karate, you have to ask yourself a lot of questions about why you do karate, and what you get out of it. why should anyone possibly do what you tell them to? sometimes such questions are subconscious, and merely show up in the way you teach, but there is value in asking (and answering) these questions out loud.

so to choose 'wisdom' as a bold label for the club is to make the statement that there is always a reason for everything you do in karate, even if when you begin you have to take things on faith for a while. i believe that the ability to do difficult and complex things, and the ability to become better at something, comes from a will to do them, and that a crucial part of wanting to do something (and thus applying yourself to it) arises directly out of understanding what you are doing, and therefore how it can be performed most effectively. karate is an individual pursuit, and so my job as an instructor is to give you the wisdom that will enable you to train to the best of your ability not because i want you to, but because you do.

-neil