The “Big Karate Picture Book”

We had a discussion in my Dojo the other week about the error of thinking of Karate technique as a set of snap shot pictures strung together and I noticed on Facebook today that someone else used a similar analogy to “just looking at the pictures” and trying to understand the intention.

The point we were both making is not exactly the same but the fundamental idea is, I believe.

If we accept the premise that Kata is a collection or catalogue of Karate techniques (and I understand that how you may use those techniques is open to a myriad of interpretations) and then look at any classic karate Kata text book it is quite understandable why students struggle to understand even the most basic of lessons contained within kata, or even the proper function of any given technique at all.

From the point of view of the style of karate I teach the classic techniques of karate as they are typically transmitted in “snap shot” form are actually not techniques at all and are virtually useless in any sort of genuine application. A style of karate has grown up around these snap shot techniques and is very widely accepted but only because a series of artificial concepts have grown up with them in order to justify the terminology and to give an appearance of functionality where none really exists.

That is not to say there is no value in practicing these techniques and the body mechanics they impart, you just need to understand what it is they are trying to teach you and that they are a means to an end and not the end in themselves.

To clarify, what I mean by “snap shot” technique is what you will see in virtually any classic text book on karate basics and kata. For a pictorial representation of a kata you will usually get a series of still poses showing one “technique” after another along with a representation (or map) of the embusen. If you are very lucky you will get a picture of the preparatory movement as well (but more often not).

Now obviously, there are limitations to what you can achieve on the printed page so it’s easy to see why this happens. This is not a modern problem, even in pre photography days the illustrations were still only of the snap shot variety and taken out of a direct learning context are fairly meaningless (or at least open to multiple interpretations).

The problem that I see on the back of this however (and what I was trying to explain to my students) is that a lot of Karate is actually taught using the “snap shot mentality” of technique. That is to say that we approach technique as if the end posture, that “Kodak moment” (a reference for any really old readers 🙂 ), were actually the technique we are aiming for rather than something that just happens as the logical conclusion to performing a solo technique to its end, and that we need to overcome that limited way of thinking to understand technique fully.

What appears to have been lost in translation over the decades of classical karate training is that the technique is the bit that happens between the start and end posture of any movement (the dynamic movement from point to point) and that the end posture (the static pose), that bit so many try to perfect as their “technique”, is not and never has been the technique at all.

This is why many struggle with trying to come up with logical and meaningful bunkai for their kata as they are starting from the false premise that the “techniques” (the pauses between movements) are what they are trying to find meaning for rather than looking at the transitions between these snap shots which is where all the real karate takes place.

So, if you are looking for practical meaning in your karate and its techniques then you need to take a step away from the snap shot mentality and take the time to explore the spaces in between the pictures in the “Big Karate Picture Book”.

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