Karate: Empty Hand, and a Mind Prepared to Learn


Karate Do, My Way of Life, by Guichin Funakoshi, was one of the first books I read about karate. Consequently, it probably had the greatest interest and influence.


Fighting BrianThe author, right foreground, about to be kicked by his friend Tom, Tom’s wife behind him to his right, and the club’s chief instructor, Larry, head down at the back of this line. At London ShidoKan

Karate as Discipline

Karate is really a product of Chinese boxing, like Kung Fu, which was taken by emissaries to Okinawa in the sixteen hundreds. The teaching of the discipline varied by practitioner and by city, almost like a game of telephone where the end message differs so much from the beginning. Each master, and subsequent style, added and changed a little bit.

The sport, or discipline, or ‘do’ as in ‘the way,’ was taught from master to student, and carried between cities with the inherent difficulties of transportation and isolation of distance at the times. It spread through Okinawa, and was then introduced to Japan in 1922 by Funakoshi.

The physical study of karate involves the practice of basic techniques of striking and kicking, along with balance and movement. Forms (which my wife would irreverently refer to as dances; ‘they are NOT dances’) referred to as kata, are consistent within the style, though subtle variations between styles are obvious and interesting. Each such form, which is performed by the practitioner, takes about a minute to perform, and requires the exertion one might experience from a 440 yard run.

Practicing Kata and Kumite

Forms consisting of moves, strikes, and kicks are practiced over and over. There are a variety of ways of practice, breaking each movement down. Fine tuning occurs of hand, foot, and body position, posture, intensity, and occasional kiai (a loud yell at the peak of intensity of a movement, usually a strike). Breathing is emphasized, in some styles more than others.

Often, once a kata is known, but not yet perfected (which never really happens, of course), the class may be taught the bunkai, or application of each move, and this may be practiced with partners. Many styles will even have pre-arranged movements based on the kata movements, which can be practiced with three or four partners taking various roles. Needless to say, the performer of the kata or bunkai always wins!

The application of bunkai might simulate the original kata, though sometimes the relation is a bit obscure, but smaller segments can be practiced with partners in the form of pre-arranged movements. Here, the advantage as well is that they can be performed both left side and right side, where the kata might only offer practice with one. This pre-arranged form with partners is called kumite.

Free style kumite is sparring; you don’t know what your opponent is going to do, but you have to be prepared to block and counter-strike.

Karate does not normally involve full power strikes. Blows from hands or feet generally are ‘pulled’, stopping just at touching if against a non-vital target, or stopping within a fraction of an inch if directed to face or head, or other vital or easily damaged structure. Joints, genitals and head are generally spared.

The North American tradition of establishing grades by belt color is important; one can gauge attacks and techniques depending on the proficiency of the adversary. In Japan, they used to be white or black, but here in North America the colors span the rainbow. And it helps. If I am attacking a yellow belt (usually about three to six months training) I will be slower, and less powerful, while anticipating that they might not exhibit the same level of control when attacking me. With other black belts, you can usually do pretty well whatever you want, especially once you know your opponent. Their skill level should provide adequate protection, and, of course, your skill level should also prevent damage.

Tournaments in Karate often involve free sparring, normally with protective head and hand/foot padding. Concussions are rare because striking full force to the head is not allowed.

Other competitive activities include kata, and it is often extremely difficult for non-practitioners to understand what we are looking at when we grade a kata performance. The movements are so fast, often to the uninitiated, it is all just a blur. Nevertheless, once a karate-ka achieves a black belt level, they can usually easily see the difference in a well performed kata, regardless of style.

Karate Tradition

‘Karate begins and ends with respect.’ This is an important part of training. There is a natural tendency to take offense at someone who hits you, even if by mistake. The respect exhibited by the traditions of bowing in, bowing to each other, silence during classes, and to some extent the minor military discipline, is all important at maintaining camaraderie and control. Some of my best friends have kicked me in the stomach, punched me in the face, or thrown me onto the mats. I have thrown one close friend through the ceiling, and kicked one casual female friend out the door. The overall intent, however, is to not harm your opponent.

In thirty years, I have never seen anger ensue to any of these rather violent activities. Even the guy whose hand I broke, who required three hours of surgery as a consequence, bowed to me after the incident (as he should, it was actually his fault).

The Meaning of Karate

The original words, ‘kara’ and ‘te’ meant ‘Chinese’ and ‘hand’ respectively, reflecting the origins of the art. Funakoshi, realizing that Japanese society might not accept that interpretation…they were quite opposed to anything Chinese at the time…changed the word ‘kara’ to the homonym in Japanese meaning ’empty,’ which was represented by a different Japanese character.

In Funakoshi’s mind, empty meant ‘no weapon’ but also reflected the meditation at the beginning of sessions in an attempt to empty the mind and make it more receptive to learning. ‘No weapon’ was traditionally important. When the Okinawan islands were invaded by Japan, weapons of the usual type were removed from the peasants, perhaps with a central chopping block and knife in the village square for cutting vegetables, so the samurai would have an easier time controlling the populace.

Because samurai ‘armor’ consisted of breast plates made of wood, the practice of karate was geared towards breaking such boards by preparing the hands with continued practice, forming thick callouses that can break through three inch boards without injury. The tradition of breaking boards in order to prove technique stems from this.

Even though karate means empty hand, weapons which are related to typical farming implements, sai, bo, nunchaku, and tonfa, are typically studied as an elective type of activity.

Karate and Physical Fitness

Karate provides a fine mixture of aerobic and anaerobic exercise involving the entire body. Endurance, supple joints, flexibility are emphasized, and amazing progress can often be identified. Even the most inflexible gradually develop this latter attribute in order to perform kicks and strikes required. I have the body of a football player, naturally inflexible. After years of karate, when being evaluated by spinal orthopedic surgeons for my spinal stenosis in my early sixties, they asked me to touch my toes, expecting my hands maybe to reach down to my knees. When I actually casually placed my palms on the floor beside my feet, legs straight at the knees, without apparent difficulty, they dismissed my complaints. Even at that time I was still able to kick an opponent in the head if need be, while remaining essentially vertical from the waste up.

The typical karate-ka goes to the dojo (‘jo’, the place, ‘do’, the way: the place of the way) for an hour and a half three times a week or more, for classes. A typical class is hard enough that the gi (uniform) weighs an extra kilo or two from acquired perspiration. Warm up calisthenics, then repeated basic techniques, followed by kata and bunkai constitute a typical class. Interspersed during the week will be five or six hours of other aerobics and weight training, as well as individual kata at home. I have never heard any instructor ask students to do this, and I have never known an advanced student not to do it. Thus most of us, even with busy schedules, would be doing 9 to 10 hours of fitness a week by the time we got to green belt anyway.

Karate and Mental Health

When I first started practicing medical oncology, many of my patients would have terminal illness. This was an emotional challenge, and achieving a balance in practice and life is always important for physicians in general, oncologists in particular. My first few years in practice were very difficult.

I tried a number of forms of exercise to help cope, but always I would find I was distracted by thoughts of some challenging patient. Running, squash, aerobics, tennis, it was no use. Until I got to karate. Basically the first three months were so hard, I was more concerned with not vomiting, and thoughts of my patients disappeared of necessity. Soon I found the meditation at the beginning of class, where I would actively empty my mind, was starting to work, and the paired association eventually lead to a calm befalling me whenever I enter a dojo.

I have had the opportunity of teaching many young people, and parents have always worried about karate being abused by their children when they get back to the schoolyard. Two things tend to inform me this is not a problem generally: respect of your partner is emphasized at all levels and times during the classes, and the confidence in one’s skills and techniques tend to prevent the need for the youngster to prove his or her expertise to others.

A good school teaches everyone that the best form of self defense is avoidance; indeed, one school I attended early on forced us to run for 30 minutes before the calisthenics, teaching us to run away from any fight. As the adage goes, the white belt gets in a fight and loses, the brown belt gets in a fight and wins, and the black belt isn’t there to get in the fight.

Karate in Fiction (Particularly, Mine)

In a scene from Hollow Moon, you are asked to visualize the extended karate sequence in slow motion. The hero, Garth, and an Ensign with him, are entering an airlock in the Carousel, a structure with artificially generated gravity in a weightless environment. They see two men in front of them, both armed, one small balding with a gun (Sig Sauer Mosquito) held by his elbow under his arm, the other one in sunglasses (who happens to be a Nefra). The two men are part of a drug gang in Trojan, and they are there to assassinate a potential snitch in the Ortho Burn Unit:

The Ensign did not register the danger, so continued to enter the air lock without hesitating. Mr. Sunglasses brought his gun up to eye level, arm straight, and aimed directly at the Ensign. Even as Garth started to lunge, he saw the smaller balding man look back, and with the surprise, released the clasping pressure on his silenced Mosquito. Garth heard the two consecutive spits from Mr. Sunglasses’ pistol, and saw the Ensign’s head jerk back. He felt hot viscous liquid spray across his own eyes. His right eye blurred as he hunched down slightly, continuing his forward momentum. Garth raised his left arm up under the outstretched arm with the SIG P226. 

Behind the shooter, the opposing air lock door opened to reveal a man and a woman, TPD officers, standing there in the hall. Garth vaguely recognized the male, as he made contact with the gun arm of the shooter in sunglasses. At the same time, Garth struck Mr. Sunglasses in the throat with a right handed uraken strike, his fist extended straight at the metacarpal phalangeal joint so that the first interphalangeal joints made contact, instead of the usual knuckles; his fist resembled a hockey puck in shape, flat, hard and narrow, and with years of practice, the powerful tightening of the fingers made the narrow contact rigid enough to break boards, narrow enough to sneak up between chin and sternum. 

The blow fractured the windpipe, immobilizing the assailant with pain, drop in blood pressure, and immediate airway blockage. While still levering the assailant’s right arm vertical, Garth followed that blow with a right jodan empi, an upper elbow strike to the jaw. Mr. Sunglasses’ arm was now pointed up and behind him. The gun spat once more, the bullet striking and piercing the green wall behind and above them at the juncture with the ceiling.

Garth continued his forward momentum, sliding his left arm up to the wrist of the assailant and inserting his right arm behind the right elbow of the now completely unconscious Mr. Sunglasses man, whose sunglasses were admittedly long gone, revealing large piercingly blue eyes. Garth pressed back on the assailant’s right wrist with his left arm to push the arm backwards over Mr. Sunglasses’ shoulder. Glancing over at the balding man, Garth brought his right leg forward in a mid-level roundhouse kick that caught the balding man in the left kidney with the extended toe of his shoe. The balding man had turned back to see the two TPD officers in front of him. One of them had just shouted. The SIG Mosquito hit the floor at about the same time, and the balding man collapsed into the next hall, at the feet of the two officers, as Garth brought his right leg, instep of his foot, really, in a smooth and continuous movement, down into the forward left ankle of the unconscious Mr. Sunglasses man, to foot sweep him to the floor. The foot sweep was really quite unnecessary at this point, but Garth did it anyway.

Sometime later, still shaken by the death of the Ensign and his brush with his own mortality, Garth sits down with Detective Inspector Simeran (a Nefra) and his partner Constable Rosie Williams. They have their own, professional reasons for wanting to hide the fact that Garth has just killed one hit man and disabled another: they need Garth to take medical care of the ‘snitch’ who is in the Ortho Burn Unit, and they want to protect Garth because he has just killed a member of the Nefra mafia. Simeran is discussing karate technique with Garth (who is an old friend and sparring partner with him, and with a mutual friend and fellow Nefra named Elper):

“That was impressive, by the way. You must show me that. A two on one defensive move, disarming perp one with the hand technique, elbow strike, then roundhouse to the secondary perp, followed by the foot-sweep on the main perp. Uraken, empi, mawashi-geri, ashi-barai in rapid succession. You practice that with Elper?” Before Garth could answer, Simeran added, with a smile, “Too bad I didn’t see it.”

Garth was nodding. “You should see Elper do it. God he’s smooth. He makes karate look easy; I always make it look hard.”

Excerpt From: Brian Henry Dingle. “Trojan: Hollow Moon of Jupiter.” iBooks.

The sequence of moves is accurate. It was actually the blow to the throat with the uraken strike that eventually killed the assassin, Mr. Sunglasses Man, with a crushed larynx. Half way through the maneuver, the power in the corridor goes out because of a stray shot from the perp’s gun, and weightlessness ensues, making Sunglasses’ resucitation difficult and unsuccessful.

When I talk of Elper, a Nefra who is the ‘brood house brother’ of Mer (the hero of Nefra Contact) I am thinking of Fortunato Restagno (Godan, 5th degree) who heads Grand River Karate, the dojo Fortch and I started in 1994. As I always said, “Fortch makes karate look easy, while I always made it look hard.”

Fortch has always been far better at karate than I.

While I have left Grand River Karate, Kitchener, when I moved to London, the club continues to this day, in the Shidokan Canada association under Roy Paul (6th degree) located in Guelph, Ontario.

Karate as Self-Defence

I have never been in a real fight, outside of sparring in the dojo and pre-arranged kumite, a fixed set of movements for training, which each participant knows are coming. I have spoken to several fellow karate-ka (karate practitioners) who have been in fights outside the dojo. While this is frowned upon, sometimes it is unavoidable. Their stories are surprisingly similar, and when you think of it, entirely understandable. There is nothing magical about all this. If you practice, you get better. If you practice a lot, you are very much better equipped than the person who does not practice at all.

What is a fight like for someone who is trained against someone who is not? I am told it is like slow motion. Boxers, mixed martial artists will tell you the same thing. If you are used to the trained person coming at you with some fast techniques, two things are apparent. First, especially with the novice, very very subtle movements by your opponent tell you exactly what they are going to do. Even before you consciously recognize it, you know they are coming at you, say, with a right roundhouse kick to the ribs, and their foot has not yet left the ground; or a feint kick, followed by a punch. Second, it all looks to be in slow motion: “Oh, look, here comes a right hand punch to my face…wait…wait…now, dodge and counter.”

It really is like that, and it is not magic. If you practice the piano, you can eventually learn to do some very fast passages you don’t even know you are doing at the time. If you are a goalie on a hockey team, your hand is going for the puck before you really see where it is going. This is quite routine. Often, you can tell where the puck is going before it leaves the ice.

I know a young woman in a related dojo, who has earned through years of repeated practice, a fourth degree black belt in Shidokan karate. She is a slight, feminine, attractive woman, who simply does not look like anyone’s bouncer, by any means.

While she was working as a waitress in a bar one night, some big, obese, 6 foot 2 inch biker was trying to physically hit on her, eventually grabbing her where she didn’t want to be grabbed. A ridge hand strike to the throat followed by a kick to the genitals and then a kick (same leg) immediately to the side of the right knee, and down he went. In the process, she had stepped to the side out of the way of the sweeping right arm that she knew was coming. He quickly hobbled out of the bar, to her chagrin because he was stiffing her with the bill. She had painfully disabled some Hell’s Angel type who was literally twice her size, and she worried about it for a while, thinking he might come back with friends. Even black belts don’t like guns. But how do you explain that to your friends?  Seems likely that biker guy kept his mouth shut. The sequence was over before she consciously knew what had happened, and it did look like slow motion to her.

Karate as a Social Structure

A lot of my life has been spent in a hospital or a dojo. Both provide exposure to an interesting slice of humanity. There are perhaps a lot of macho types in karate, but more and more in the last couple of decades, especially in parent-child programs where both are in the class (a common marketing technique where both child and parent start, at a cut rate, only to have the child give up after three months and the parent continue on to black belt!) the demographics have tended to represent all walks of life. Doctors (like me), teachers, professors, graphic designers, police, military of course, sales people, consultants and personal trainers, postal workers, health care personal, farmers, accountants, plumbers, electricians, construction workers, store managers, university students come to mind as I think of the people I know…and with all of these, often come their significant others, or their significant other wannabes. I have attended at least one wedding of two karate-ka who met at the dojo.

Parties, and social get-togethers are common, particularly after tournaments, collective movies when some martial arts B- or C-level film comes along (to laugh at) and with my last club, an annual three day camp at which the first half hour each day is spent going around a ‘circle of friendship’ where everybody shakes hands with everybody else.iha

To this day, even after several years of retirement from karate due to physical ailments, some of my best friends are karate-ka. While I had to stop early in life (at sixty-five), many go on until seventies or eighties, much as the Hanshi of our style of Beikoku Shidokan karate.

Seikichi Iha, Hanshi (10th dan) Beikoku Karate, Lansing Michigan. At 84, this chap could take on me, and three others like me! Even at my prime.


Karate is a wonderful sport. In unison with a class, or all alone. Once I got over the embarrassment of observers wondering what I was doing, with just a T-shirt and gi pants (kicking is easier in a karate-gi, and the uniform gives feedback when the strike is made with sufficient speed and power) I would do kata for an hour by myself, pretty well anywhere. On a beach, in a park. But unlike mainstream sports, most people do not understand karate unless they have done it for a while. Once you are bitten though, it becomes part of your life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s