Traditional martial arts–karate included–often receive criticism for concepts being taught that are seen as unrealistic and poor form by those who do not understand what they are seeing. Chief among these seem to be “chambered” hands (hikite), low stances and the difference between karate sparring and kata.
Traditional martial arts–karate included–often receive criticism for concepts being taught that are seen as unrealistic and poor form by those who do not understand what they are seeing. Chief among these seem to be “chambered” hands (hikite), low stances and the difference between karate sparring and kata. There are varying explanations as to why these concepts are taught as well as why they should not be taught, and it all comes back to differences in philosophy. The most persistent critics of these concepts are MMA fans, MMA practitioners and boxers. In MMA and in boxing, you are fighting against a similarly trained opponent to win a contest by way of collecting points or rendering your opponent incapable of continuing according to the rules laid out for the event. Compare that to the mentality of karate which is to defend against a threat by any means necessary, and there are no rules involved.
Hikite is a popular concept in karate, but it tends to be both overemphasized and poorly taught at the beginner level. White belts are taught to always chamber their hands at the hip while they punch and block, but they are not told why or they are told that it helps them with focusing on their hip movement, and that may be sufficient for a short time but if this goes on for too long then the student will pull their hands back to the chambered position automatically. On the surface, this seems to be a good thing–repetition has caused it to be ingrained in the student’s muscle memory–but it can actually be a serious problem later on if the student hasn’t been taught how to use hikite early in their training. The word “hiki” translates to “pull”, while “te” means “hand”, and that is exactly what the hand should be doing when drawn back to the hip–it should be pulling something. This is typically taught and emphasized later in a karateka’s training, but they are already conditioned to pull their hand back with nothing in it, and so they will have to re-learn hikite. For this reason, many people who have a small amount of karate experience or none at all will look at the kata and drills in karate that have hikite (and te-uke/te-gatana) and see them as teaching bad habits. It is obviously preferable to keep your hands up in a confrontation than to drop them down to your hips, but becomes much less important when you are holding onto your attacker, which those critics (and beginners who have not been taught otherwise) will not see when they watch karate training.
Some karate styles have very light, natural stances, while others have very low stances, and still others have some of both. Deep, low stances are often criticized by both other styles of karate that use natural stances and other arts like boxing as being unrealistic and restrictive to movement. There is very little harm that comes from training in low stances, although the benefits can be achieved in other ways. Using low stances is much more strenuous and is good for strengthening the legs and building explosiveness when moving in those low stances, but strength training can accomplish those as well. The biggest benefit of low stances is their stability which, while not ideal for martial sports, is very beneficial to self defense. In a self defense situation you will want to stay on your feet at all costs, and that means you will need to lower you center of gravity and increase your balance to prevent yourself from being knocked down. Even in a sport scenario where you want to be light on your feet and able to move around a lot, you will still drop low if you want to prevent someone from taking you down. Most often, low stances are ridiculed because they are seen as being the entirety of a style’s footwork, when they are merely supplemental, but it is often difficult to tell when they are being trained properly and when they are being done simply because that is the way they were told to do it.
Sparring vs Kata
These and other complaints tend to bring up one of the most controversial critiques of traditional martial arts–sparring versus forms. People who train arts that do not utilize kata (forms) tend to think of them as being strange and useless because no one fights the way they perform kata. There is some truth to this in that forms have been cleaned up and homogenized, but that doesn’t mean that the techniques do not work or are not useful and, in fact, it can be considered a form of shadow boxing. The techniques that can be found in kata are designed to combat committed (and often surprise) attacks, so some of them can, in fact, be found in sparring and sport fighting in general, even if it may not be obvious at first glance. Those techniques do tend to lend themselves more to attacks in a self defense situation, however, where you do not know what training your attacker will have and you are allowed to strike the groin, throat, eyes and back of the head or twist someone around by their wrist or head, among other things that would otherwise be illegal and unsafe in sport fighting and sparring. Kata may have cleaned things up and made them look attractive, but they are still useful in self defense, if properly trained, and some of it is still viable in sparring even if it doesn’t look as nice.
In the end, every martial art has its detractors and many will never be convinced that they should change their opinions. Arguing and debating with these people is not important, but it does sometimes cause students of karate and other traditional arts to second guess their training and, in light of that, many of them leave their arts to pursue arts with more “modern” approaches. It is important to remember that the things done in karate are done for a purpose, and whether you train for self defense or for sport you can find value in it so long as you take the time to learn the reasons behind the obscure and unusual techniques that you do not understand. Do not dismiss, outright, the things that you do not understand or you may find later that you rejected something that could have been very valuable to you.