Karate-Do Philosophy

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Understanding the principles and philosophy of traditional Karate-Do is essential for all its participants. Karate is often sensationalized by some people as a brutal method of fighting. The purpose, objectives, and goals of Karate should not be limited to its physical appearance. The relationship between a lifetime of martial arts and the necessity of using Karate skills in a mature and responsible way has been taught for many centuries.

Unfortunately, sensationalism and commercialization of martial arts together with accelerated exportation of instructors to the West, seems to have resulted in a loss of these concepts all too often. Karate should not be practiced solely as a fighting technique. In order to make effective use of the fundamental techniques and to maximize development of Karate athletes, the philosophical aspect of traditional Karate as an art of self-defence must not only be recognized but must also play a prominent role. Traditional Karate is a martial art and students should train with an appropriate attitude exemplifying the goals and principles of the martial art. A strong emphasis should be placed on metaphysical aspects of the art rather than on the physical techniques. Proper training must apply to the body and the mind in conjunction.

Traditional Karate systems emphasize character building aspects as a foremost principle with respects for instructors, colleagues, and opponents alike. Principles taught to students can be summarized by the following words; character, sincerity, effort, etiquette, and self-control. This is the true way for a martial art such as Karate-Do.

Consequently, a true follower of Karate-Do should strive for perfection in both the philosophical and physical aspects of the art. This will particularly enhance all athletes’ abilities in the execution of Karate techniques in practice, competition, or self-defence. Karate-Do (the way of the empty hand) implies more than is immediately obvious. In an often quoted passage Gichin Funakoshi described the state of mind and body to which the Karate-ka (Karate practitioner) should aspire. He used the image of a mirror:

As a mirror’s polished surface reflects whatever stands before it; and a quiet valley carries even small sounds, so must the student of Karate render their mind empty of selfishness and wickedness in an effort to react appropriately to anything they might encounter. This is the meaning of kara in karate.

As a result, the name Karate was chosen to convey the ideas of emptiness since students are expected to empty their minds of all thoughts and emotions in pursuit of their Budo (martial art way, or way of the warrior). An incorrect mental attitude would inevitably have an adverse effect on even the most skilled technician, and Karate-ka must train to the point of automatic reaction where external considerations will not interfere with their calm mental state of impassivity or emptiness.
This is not to say that Karate training is done in a mindless state, but rather is free from inhibiting thoughts of doubt, confusion, or fear.

Analogies to water are also referred to in many martial art readings’ such as:

Smooth water reflects the image of all that is whit in its range. If the Karate-ka’s mind is in such a state, they will be able to immediately comprehend their opponent’s movements and respond appropriately. However, if the surface is disturbed, the result will be a distortion of the images it reflects with the equivalent results on the Karate-ka’s mind.

Another analogy refers to the mind as being like the moon:

As the moon shines on everything within its range the Karate-ka is to be constantly aware of the totality of the opponent and their movements. If the clouds were to block the light, a correct appreciation of the opponent’s movements would become more difficult to assess and the right approach would escape. The will must connect mind and body so that the mind does not function in isolation and there can be a physical reaction in unison with the order given by the mind.

Another link between mental and physical components is defined as focus (kime). Focus is the art of concentrating all one’s mental energies on a specific target in an instant. The analogy has been drawn of a person trapped in a blazing room being able to produce on demand the strength to knock down the door, a task normally found quite impossible. Kime involves a spontaneous concentration of energy, often referred to in the martial arts as “chi” or “ki,” which flows from the pelvic region to the extremities and points of contact. To generate maximum speed, the striking limb is kept relaxed until immediately before impact. On impact, the muscles of the body contract and the student emit a “kiai” which is propelled by the muscles of the lower diaphragm.

Psychologically this assists with a total commitment to the technique and the muscular effort involved adds to the power produced. It should be noted that the “kiai” need not produce any sound. The object is to transmit, via the correct use of stance, breathing, and timing, the muscular power of the whole body down a striking limb moving at maximum speed, to focus on a given object. In conjunction with the mental concentration, this exertion of energy is instantaneous and is collectively withdrawn in the next instant in preparation for another technique. 


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The Japanese Master Funakoshi Gichin who introduced Karate-Do to Japan in 1921, said that “the essence of Karate-Do is the art of being non-violent”


Gichin Funakoshi laid out the Twenty Precepts of Karate know as (Niju Kun) which form the foundations of the art. Within these twenty principles, based heavily on bushido and Zen, lies the philosophy of Shotokan. The principles allude to notions of humility, respect, compassion, patience, and both an inward and outward calmness. It was Funakoshi's belief that through karate practice and observation of these 20 principles, the karateka would improve their person.

The Twenty Precepts of Karate-do are:

1.  Never forget: Karate begins with rei and ends with rei. (rei has the meaning of courtesy, respect).

2.  There is no first hand in Karate. (There is no first attack in Karate.)

3.  Karate supports righteousness.

4.  First understand yourself, then understand others.

5.  The art of mind is more important than the art of technique.

6.  The mind needs to be freed.

7.  Trouble is born of negligence.

8.  Do not think Karate is only in the dojo.

9.  The training of Karate requires a lifetime.

10.  Transform everything into Karate; there lies the exquisiteness.

11.  Genuine Karate is like hot water; it cools down if you do not keep on heating it.

12.  Do not hate the idea of winning, while the idea of not losing is necessary.

13.  Transform yourself according to the opponent.

14.  The outcome of the fight all depends on the maneuver.

15.  Imagine one’s arms and legs as swords.

16.  Once you leave the shelter of home, there are a million enemies.

17.  Postures are for the beginner, later they are natural positions.

18.  Do the kata correctly; the real fight is a different matter.

19.  Do not forget the control of the dynamics [of power], the elasticity [of body] and the speed [of technique].

20.  Always be good at the application of everything that you have learned.

(Master Gichin Funakoshi called people vain who took pride in physical demonstrations of brute strength, like breaking of boards or smashing of tiles, or people who exaggerated their destruction of the human body. He professed that they knew nothing about the noble art of Karate-do. He compared it with playing around in the leaves and branches of a great tree without the slightest perception of the main trunk).


Another part of the karate-do philosophy is the dōjō kun. Generally credited to Gichin Funakoshi (but rumoured to have been created by Kanga Sakukawa, an 18th-century Okinawan karate proponent) the Shotokan Karate dojo kun serves as a set of five guiding principles, recited at the end of each training session in most styles, intended to frame the practice within an ethical context.


The five rules are:


Seek Perfection of Character.

Hitotsu! Jinkaku kansei ni tsutomuru koto

To strive for the perfection of character


Be Faithful.

Hitotsu! Makato no michi o mamoru koto

To protect/defend the paths of truth


Endeavor to excel.

Hitotsu! Doryoku no seishin o yashinau koto

To foster the spirit of effort


Respect others.

Hitotsu! Reigi o omonsuru koto.

To honor the principles of etiquette


Refrain from violent behavior.

Hitotsu! Kekki no yu o imashimuru koto

To guard against impetuous courage


Remember Regardless of when you say the dojo kun, or in what language you speak it, say it with pride and say it like you mean it.

The true way of martial arts such as Karate-Do is summarized by the precepts of; Character, sincerity, effort, etiquette, and self-control. Although these precepts are repeated one after another they are equally important and should each be exemplified by the students of the dojo at all times.


The following brief explanation may help you to develop your understanding of the ideas of each aspects of the Dojo Kun.

Seek perfection of character.

The first, “seek perfection of character,” indicates that karate-Do is more than just physical. Through rigorous training, the spirit to improve and succeed will be developed. Along with this fierce competitive spirit one should come to the realization that your strength is great, and to use it and your karate against the uninitiated is unjust.

Karate-ka should seek to focus their minds as well as their body movements. Forging of the spirit in the face of adversity will provide a lifetime of benefits. Even in old age, when the body is no longer able to perform well, your character will continue to grow.

Be faithful.

To “be faithful” reflects the strong samurai traditions and by extension a Confucianism in the martial arts. In a sense, the faith to be shown is faith in your instructors and seniors. Students must always be faithful to them and just as the samurai followed their feudal lords.

While this may seem unusual today, it is unreasonable to expect instructors to extend themselves fully and teach all they know to students who are likely to leave for the slightest reason. The faith extended to instructors will be rewarded by a continued transfer of knowledge to students. This bond between teachers and student is extremely valuable and is the basis of the learning relationship.


The “Endeavour” of the Dojo Kun refers to the complete dedication to the effort necessary to achieve mastery of Karate-Do. In no case is mastery possible without strenuous effort on the part of the practitioner. The endeavour must be sincere and not just a pretence. Serious students are easily recognized by instructors.

Respect others.

Respect for others is common to all Japanese fighting systems. Martial arts begin and end with courtesy, reflecting the formal nature of the Japanese people, and are observed in the manner in which they conduct themselves in training sessions and generally in the presence of one another.

Dojo etiquette is particularly well defined; requiring that all that enter the dojo pause and bow to the memory of past masters, whose photographs or paintings are usually at the front (the West facing wall). Prior to the beginning of class, students and instructors line up before the photographs, kneel, and meditate (mokuso). They bow to the memory of past masters and then to one another from the kneeling position (seiza).

This courtesy continues throughout the training session. Whenever an exercise, drill, or kata that uses two people or more is performed, it always begins and ends with a bow (rei). Additionally, the bowing ceremony is repeated at the end of training after a closing period of meditation a review of the session (hansei).

Refrain from violent behaviour.

It is the responsibility of all trained Karate-ka to “refrain from violent behaviour” since a trained fighter can inflict serious injury upon others. The goal of Karate training is self-mastery, including mastery of your own behaviour. In some situations where it becomes necessary to defend yourself, no non-violent alternative may be possible.

However, the tradition handed down by great teachers indicates that after a life of training, they felt they had failed if they were forced to resort to violent action against their fellow man, no matter how justified such actions might have been.

In the present day, refraining from violence is often hard to explain. Many people take up the art of Karate-Do with the purpose in mind of hurting others and they wish to learn how to do so as quickly as possible. It is therefore necessary for students to remember the Dojo Kun and to impress it upon their juniors.

Funakoshi also wrote:

"The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of the participant."


Thanks for reading

The sensei

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