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Anf
Anf's picture
Impractical karate

I'm sad to say I've become very skeptical in recent times about martial arts. I no longer just assume that the person with the higher grade knows best. The reason being, I've come to realise after possibly 35 years of interest in the martial arts, and cumulatively maybe 10 years of direct involvement, that there's a lot of misinformation out there. I'm embarrassed to admit that for years I believed that Mr Miyagi from the original karate kid was an actual grandmaster, because a club I was in at the time claimed his as some kind of accolade, and being pre Internet I had no way to verify that and no reason to do so.

Despite this, I still recognise a lot of good in martial arts. But I have an issue with impracticable techniques.

To pick just one example, let's say the rising block, jodan uke if I remember the Japanese terminology right. It is often taught as a way to block a punch coming towards the face. So in the fraction of a second that it takes for a punch to travel to us, we must: extend our spare arm (the one we're not going to block with), twist our torso while chambering our blocking arm to the opposite hip, twist our torso back the other way while moving our arms in a crossing motion, and raising our blocking arm, all with our head, the intended target, straight up, and all in the time it takes for a punch to happen, minus the delay in reaction.

Now here's the thing. I'm not rubbishing the technique. I've tested it in a controlled friendly way, and it's a great grappling tool, but I doubt if anyone will convince me it is effective as a block against a punch.

So I ask myself why it is sold as such. I've got three theories.

1. I don't understand the technique or can't perform it well enough. It does work, but I can't make it work.

2. Instructors generally know it doesn't work, but they are teaching the mechanics of it first, and will explain the application later.

3. Some instructors actually don't know, and are just relaying, parrot fashion, what they were told.

I singled out one technique as an example here, but I have similar thoughts on a number of techniques.

I think I'd be comfortable with any of those theories, if folk were honest about it. I think the issue I have is that sometimes I doubt that honesty.

Any thoughts?

Marc
Marc's picture

Anf wrote:
I no longer just assume that the person with the higher grade knows best.

The person with the higher grade does not necessarily know best. They usually will have more experience than lower grades within the system they train in. They have shown that they are competent in whatever was required of them in their grading exams. What skills or knowledge were required varies a lot from system to system and from association to association.

Anf wrote:
I've come to realise after possibly 35 years of interest in the martial arts, and cumulatively maybe 10 years of direct involvement, that there's a lot of misinformation out there.

Hence the need for discussions such as this and many others on this forum. Luckily, this is a forum where people discuss things in a friendly, respectful and factful manner.

Anf wrote:
I'm embarrassed to admit that for years I believed that Mr Miyagi from the original karate kid was an actual grandmaster, because a club I was in at the time claimed his as some kind of accolade, and being pre Internet I had no way to verify that and no reason to do so.

Maybe the club referred to a different Mr. Miyagi.

Anf wrote:
To pick just one example, let's say the rising block, jodan uke if I remember the Japanese terminology right.

In karate the rising block is Age-Uke (age=rising, uke=receiving) or Jodan-Uke (jodan=upper level, uke=receiving). So it is not a block (force against force) but a receiving technique (accepting the attacker's force and using it to our advantage).

Anf wrote:
It is often taught as a way to block a punch coming towards the face. So in the fraction of a second that it takes for a punch to travel to us, we must: extend our spare arm (the one we're not going to block with), twist our torso while chambering our blocking arm to the opposite hip, twist our torso back the other way while moving our arms in a crossing motion, and raising our blocking arm, all with our head, the intended target, straight up, and all in the time it takes for a punch to happen, minus the delay in reaction.

What you describe is a very common "application". It is mostly used in kihon kumite forms which are often required for grading. It's even worse with Soto-Uke (the one from-out-to-in) against a middle-level straight punch.

Anf wrote:
I doubt if anyone will convince me it is effective as a block against a punch.

Yeah, just slapping the incoming arm down or the the side seems much easier, doesn't it. And of course, it is.

Here's a much more plausible application that actually makes use of all the parts of the Age-Uke technique and puts it into a realistic context:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFtjYdjZR3Y

Anf wrote:
So I ask myself why it is sold as such. I've got three theories.

1. I don't understand the technique or can't perform it well enough. It does work, but I can't make it work.

Probably not. Learning to parry a straight attack to the face should not take years to master.

Anf wrote:
2. Instructors generally know it doesn't work, but they are teaching the mechanics of it first, and will explain the application later.

Probably not. The mechanics are better taught in solo kihon or against focus mitts, kick shields or a heavy bag - or even as force vectors on a drawing board.

Anf wrote:
3. Some instructors actually don't know, and are just relaying, parrot fashion, what they were told.

Maybe. And if you look at just the end position it kind of looks alright. The rising arm deflected the straight arm upwards over the head. You have not been hit. Of course, as you described above, this ignores all the other parts of the complex movement we call Age-Uke.

I can also think of another reason:

4. Instructors teach this to prepare their students for examination. If it is required for grading by the association then it is necessary to teach it to allow the students to pass the exam - no matter how useless it is otherwise. The instructor might or might not know a more reasonable application and will or will not teach it to their students.

Anf wrote:
I singled out one technique as an example here, but I have similar thoughts on a number of techniques.

I'm sure on this forum you will find convincing practical solutions for each of them.

Anf wrote:
I think I'd be comfortable with any of those theories, if folk were honest about it. I think the issue I have is that sometimes I doubt that honesty. Any thoughts?

The problem is: If you think you have learned the correct explanation for a technique and it seems plausible enough to you, then you will gladly pass it on to your students. It's not a question of honesty, but of education and of critical thinking.

All the best,

Marc

Chris R
Chris R's picture

I think it's sold as a punch defense because that's what the widespread styles of Japanese karate have decided it should be. That does not mean it is one of the original applications of the movement though, or practical. I'm not particularly knowledgable on the history of how this became widespread, so I'd rather leave that explanation to someone who knows more about it.

Anf wrote:
2. Instructors generally know it doesn't work, but they are teaching the mechanics of it first, and will explain the application later.

I disagree with instructors who use this method. In my opinion, it is largely unnecessary when many of these applications can be performed by a student with only a few months of training, at least to a basic standard. By introducing applications early on in a student's journey, they end up having far more time to practice and perfect them, and they become a better fighter in less time.

Anf wrote:
3. Some instructors actually don't know, and are just relaying, parrot fashion, what they were told.

Karate has a hierarchical grading system, and it is unfortunately quite widely accepted that those with a higher ranking know better and should not be questioned. Many instructors were taught something impractical, but are unwilling to question that technique's practicality, so they pass it on to the next generation who then proceed to make the same mistakes. Another factor is that many instructors don't have the knowledge to question the practicality of these techniques, because they personally have no experience regarding fighting or violence.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Anf wrote:
I'm sad to say I've become very sceptical in recent times about martial arts.

That’s a good thing. True scepticism asks for critical scrutiny, intellectual rigor, systematic doubt and continual testing. Take a sceptical position and the good elements of the martial arts shine brighter while the nonsense gets washed away.

Anf wrote:
I no longer just assume that the person with the higher grade knows best.

We never should. “Appeal to authority” (argumentum ab auctoritate) is a widespread logical fallacy in the martial arts.

In general terms, an experienced and knowledgeable person is more likely to be correct. For example, a doctor is more likely to be right about questions relating to your health than a friend with no medical training is. However, doctors can be wrong. The very fact they are a doctor does not mean they are guaranteed to be right. When they are right, they are right because they are right. The are not right BECAUSE they are a doctor.

While we may give more weight to the view of an experienced and educated person (I will listen to my doctor because they know more about medical matters than me), we should not assume they are guaranteed to be correct and personal scepticism is always healthy (i.e. get a second opinion if you feel the information does not ring true).

With regards to the martial arts, we can do the same. What differs is high rank in martial arts is not necessarily a sign of experience and knowledge. Ranks are not always given to reflect ability. Standards vary widely. Sadly, grades are given for political reason and financial reasons too. We also need to acknowledge there are many variations in what karate is. It can be physical exercise, art, sport, self-defence, etc. Rank given in one are does not equate to knowledge in another.

In face of all of this, we need to remain sceptical and never take “appeal to authority” as a good argument for the truth of a given statement.

All the best,

Iain

PASmith
PASmith's picture

IMHO high rank in martial arts can often mean the person is entrenched in old and outdated ideas and concepts (see for example the hikite for power generation discussion). Some of the worst bunkai I've seen has been from some 9th and 10th dans! Whereas someone starting martial arts 10-20 years ago, while not being as high a grade perhaps, will have trained with the influence of MMA, youtube and widespread martial skepticism (and of course the influence of skeptical martial thinkers and innovators like Iain). These days we are less likely to take a "just because" explanation for stuff we train in.

Of course everyone (and every idea) should be evaluated on their own merits. I'll reject an idea from a 9th dan if it sounds like nonsense to me. And I'll accept and idea from a white belt if it rings true.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

PASmith wrote:
I'll reject an idea from a 9th dan if it sounds like nonsense to me. And I'll accept and idea from a white belt if it rings true.

A wise course of action!

All the best,

Iain

Anf
Anf's picture

Thanks for the very constructive and objective info from all on here. Very informative and useful. I've read all your responses carefully several times, and take on board everything said.