Why Traditional Karate Is Not Effective For Self-Defense
By WR Mann

As a preface to this article, let me state that, yes -- anything can work sometimes, but some things work much better, most of the time! This article focuses on traditional (old-style karate), not modern variations that involve extensive cross-training.

The underlining motivation in studying any type of martial activity is to protect ourselves (or others) in a real fighting situation. At first glance karate seems to provide a solution, until you look more closely at its underpinnings; then you realize it's not fully equipped to handle violence in the 21st Century. I often refer to karate (and other traditional Asian martial arts) as the Potemkim Village of the martial arts -- a grand facade offering significantly less in the way of substantive tactics and defensive measures than any of the reality-based defense systems.

The reason I dissuade people from getting into karate (and other traditional martial arts) is because I don't want them misinformed like I was, studying retrograde theories and techniques that no longer have any relevance to the way we live and need to respond to. Let's be honest, all things being equal, some fighting styles are vastly superior to others. I'm not saying karate is completely ineffective. Karate, like many other fighting styles, has the potential of stopping an attacker, however, the degree of efficiency is far less than muaythai, Brazilian jujitsu, boxing, and especially reality-based systems. Using a metaphor, the flintlock is certainly capable of stopping someone, but the M16 has a far greater degree of efficiency. (Again, the exception is when student's of karate update their fighting skills to deal with modern situations in their environment.)

"If you're up against someone who doesn't know how to fight -- yes, old-style karate can work, but if you fight an experienced streetfighter or a trained fighter, no way!" - Jon Bluming

To properly put this question into perspective (why karate is not the most effective form of self-defense system) we must first discuss four topics:

1) Conditions of violence in the world today

2) Constituents of effective self-defense in the 21St-Century?

3) What are people looking for [in their self-defense training]?

4) A differentiation and clarification of fighting categories in 2009

Conditions of violence in the world today

Although terrorism has been around for years, its most dramatic impact was felt on September 11, 2001, after the destruction of the World Trade Center. From this point on, the world realized that there were no safe havens left. For the first time in history, Americans were scrambling for gas masks, anthrax remedies, survival and first-aid kits. Suddenly, self-defense was no longer only someone trying to rob or punch you, it now extended to potentially surviving large-scale violence, such as nuclear attacks, bombings, poison gas and snipers. Levels of common violence have also grown and laws against defending yourself have been initiated by several governments in the past few years.

Constituents of effective self-defense in the 21St-Century?

Nowadays, physical violence can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere and under any conditions. Therefore it's paramount that modern self-defense must encompass the whole range of possible situational and environmental scenarios. That includes surviving a bomb attack, gas and chemical attacks, a mob, snipers, muggings, and more. In general, no fighting style will totally prepare us for these scenarios; some reality-based schools at least provide some awareness, avoidance and escape options.

Karate (as well as other traditional styles) have been slow to add realistic elements to their training. They just go on about their business, ignoring the way today's criminals conduct themselves, or if they have, they are stuck in a time warp, as if they've never heard of home invasions, car jackings, firearms attacks and terrorists.

Not only is it necessary to practice under a wide variety of conditions and circumstances but you need to be intimately familiar with all three phases of the attack cycle (pre-conflict, the conflict, and post conflict), adrenaline-dump, the use-of-force, self-triage and more. Unless this holistic approach is practiced in simulated environments, expect you or your loved ones to become potential victims.

What are people looking for [in their self-defense training]?

With the exception of individuals interested in spiritual martial endeavors, most people are busy with full time careers, school, family or other interests. They are disinclined to spend many years studying martial arts; the only time they seek out a protective-measures course is when something happens close to home.

I can tell you for a fact, most busy people nowadays are not looking for "a way of life," a new religion, or grueling years of pushups and sit-ups interspersed with kata (a pattern of techniques). They "are" however looking for a set of effective and efficient techniques and tactics they can employ to escape a violent attack -- now! (not years from now).

Not only do you need to train in the conflict stage of an attack but you need to add pre-and post-conflict training as well. Karate (as well as most traditional martial arts) ignores the pre and post conflict stages, and their methodology of teaching is of the "spoon-fed" variety. They don't for the most part attempt to approach defensive tactics against firearms, hostage taking, store/bank robberies and multiple armed opponents; but these are very real potential situations today.

A clarification and differentiation of fighting categories

When you mention the term "martial arts," today, everyone immediately knows what you mean. The term has become the generic moniker for all fighting styles. What most people don't realize is there are three distinct categories. 1) Traditional-based, 2) Sports-based, and 3) Reality-based defense.


Traditional "arts" are historical styles originating in Asia. They include karate, jujitsu, aikido, taekwondo, numerous schools of kung fu, and much more. These styles are what the general public refers to when the term "martial art" is used; this is what we see in the movies. They incorporate the use of traditional-based apparel and employ some form of philosophical or pseudo-religious component. Although many of these systems claim to be a thousand years or older, truth be told, most of them have been around for only a hundred years or so, (with the exception of a few Chinese styles and Okinawan karate, which is about 250 years old). Generally traditional "martial arts" are the least street effective styles in this era and take the longest time to learn. However, I am not saying a highly skilled practitioner is not effective.


The second group, "sports-based fighting," originate from older styles but have been modified and updated to be effective in the ring and conform strictly to specific rules. They can be adapted for the street (in a weaponless environment). Wrestling and boxing are updated versions of their ancient Greek and Roman counterparts, Brazilian jujitsu is a western version of Japanese jujitsu and muaythai is the modernized style of Thailand's fighting systems from the 14th Century. It takes several years to become proficient in "sports-based fighting." In most cases, practitioners easily prevail over their traditional martial art cousins. This is due to in great part to "live-training."

Reality-Based Defense

Reality-based defense (an offshoot of police and military defensive tactics) are the most street realistic of the three groups, and emphasize simple but effective techniques for both weapons and unarmed attacks. This is also the only group that trains you in all three stages of an attack: the pre-conflict stage (threat assessment, conflict conditioning), the conflict stage (first strike, weapon awareness) and the post-conflict stage (do you run or wait for police, what do you say to the authorities, self medical triage and legal issues).

Much of the reality-based "conflict stage" comes to us from combatives. Combatives originally came to us from 1930's Shanghai, and WWII; British commandos and US Marines developed it over the years to be a simple but effective method of fighting. Reality-based defense concepts such as fighting under stress, situational and environmental awareness and living an avoidance lifestyle, are more recent developments and came about as many individuals realized they couldn't solely depend on traditional arts.

A good reality-defense program today incorporates not only defensive tactics against physical violence by individuals or groups but also incorporates defense for all types of modern attacks from conventional to unconventional weapons conducted in situational scenario form.


Karate (and similar traditional martial arts) look great in the movies; they take a very long time to learn but don't provide efficient solutions for violent confrontations in the 21st century. They're centered on the conflict phase and ignore (if by fiat) situational and environmental circumstances. Sports-based fighting provides great skills, i.e., development of speed, power, timing etc., however it takes several years to develop these skills; and -- they still may not work in real street circumstances, this is due to their sportive nature. Many of today's reality-based systems train you in situational / environmental conditions and address all three stages of the attack stages (with and without weapons). Most important of all, reality systems provide practitioners with the proper aggressive mind-set. Basic defensive skills can be readily implemented after a short period of training (the same way police officers and combat military personnel are trained).

A Brief look at Karate's Origins and Development

Karate as we know it today originated in Okinawa circa 1750 AD, 141 years after Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the Shimizu clan to invade and occupy it. Contrary to popular myth, karate had no effect on Japan's invaders -- Okinawa still belongs to Japan after 259 years. 


Karate was introduced into Japan in the 1920's and has evolved into additional sub-styles. Major contributors to Japanese karate were Gichen Funakoshi (Shotokan), considered to be the father of modern karate, and was the first to systematize karate with the purpose and intent of mass instruction. Gogen Yamaguchi (Goju Ryu) devised modern day free-style sparring in 1936 and recognized a link between ancient Yoga and karate. He was also responsible for the founding the All Japan Karate-do Federation.


Modern breakthroughs in karate came with Mas Oyama (Kyokushinkai), and Kazuyoshi Ishii (Seidokan). Influenced by observing muaythai, Mas Oyama started incorporating hard contact during sparing sessions. I remember meeting him years ago Japan [as a teen], and he asked me where I was studying, I replied "with Gogen" (Yamaguchi), he laughed and said Goju practitioners were all ballerinas, and invited me to train at his school.

Kazuyoshi Ishii is known as the creator of K-1, it's the extreme style of karate and one of the most popular fighting sports today. The "K" comes from the first letter of the various styles of martial arts that make up K-1. Karate, Kickboxing, kung fu, kakutogi, and Korean styles.

The 12 Immutable Reasons Why Traditional Karate Is Not Effective For Self-Defense

1. The One-Strike Kill

The biggest cliché of karate is the one-strike kill. This of course does not exist, but has fooled so many for years. Shigeru Egami (one of Funakoshi's top students) freely admitted there was no such thing. At one point in his career, Egami admits going into a deep depression after concluding a personal study about which martial style had the most powerful tsuki (punches). He found that karate had the least powerful tsuki, and boxing the strongest. Betting everything on one punch can get you killed.

2. Waiting for The Attack

Karate philosophy states, "wait for the attack." Remember Funakoshi's maxim, "Never attack first?" This is suicidal. In real situations, the first person to strike usually walks away. The untrained public, (influenced by Hollywood) erroneously thinks you have to eat the first punch, but you give up your lawful right to protect yourself by letting someone strike you first. Criminals take advantage of this civilized mindset. If you feel that violence is about to break out, strike first.

3. On Stances

Karate, (along with several hard Chinese styles) employs some of the most ineffective stances in martial arts. Deep, low karate stances make you completely immobile; they plant you in one spot, making quick movements extremely difficult. This is great for working your muscles but not for active conflicts. You may as well hang a sign around your neck saying "strike me at will, I can't move." If you recall early kickboxing, the first thing they got rid of were those static stances.

4. Karate as a Way Of Life

Years ago while in Japan, Gogen (Yamaguchi) once came up to me and asked, "I never see you practice kata, why?" I replied that I thought it was an exercise in futility, having no functional value. He grew upset and chastised me by saying, without kata, we're just animals, like boxers or wrestlers, I replied, "that's OK, I just want the skills." More than anything else, some karate practitioners have a fear about being labeled as "killers." Their reply is always, "I follow the path, karate is a way of life." I guess they feel absolved from their inner conflicts or sociological guilt when they say that, sort of like what confession does for a Catholic. There is nothing wrong with the spiritual side of karate, but you have to understand there's a time to fight and a time to meditate.

5. Spirituality and Meditation

For many Japanese karateka, religion and martial arts are inseparably linked. Japanese spirituality and meditation are not a function of karate; they're emblematic of the culture that developed it. Westerners really buy into this big time. It's actually a direct affront to your personal beliefs. What if a Japanese boxer wanted to train in the U.S. with a Baptist coach, would he have to join the church, sing out loud, clap his hands, dance and get down? Changing your spiritual identity in order to learn self-defense doesn't make sense! Mas Oyama once asked me how much time I meditate per day. I told him -- I don't, I have my own religion; I don't need to replace it with another.

Meditation does not necessarily benefit any martial activity. For example, if you recall, in the 1983 Olympics in Korea, the Koreans had the strongest archery team in the world. They attributed their secret of success to their late night meditation practices in cemeteries. Did it help the men's team win - no, an American walked away with the gold. Did he meditate? No, before each match he was listening to Van Halen!

6. Breaking Objects can Break You!

Karate, more than any other martial art is renowned for its breaking demonstrations; but anyone can break inanimate objects, it's easy and you don't have to study karate to do so. Do breaking boards and bricks translate into fighting ability? Again Egami comments that breaking objects is very different than striking a human body, humans are resilient. He goes farther, saying that even "makiwara" training is harmful to the body, and stopped doing it already in the late '50's. Robert Smith, in his book "Martial Musings" notes that Mas Oyama damaged his hands so much he couldn't even place a blanket on top of them when he went to sleep. Continued breaking over a period of years brings with it such delights as arthritis and other degenerative diseases.

7. The Kata Crutch

A major part of karate practice focuses on kata. I've never understood why so many people defend it so vehemently. There's almost a cult-like obsession about doing it. Perhaps karateka feel it grants them a special kind of spiritual dispensation, allowing them to indulge in the study of fighting. Kata however is nothing more than several techniques strung together; a tool to help beginners understand how techniques flow. For advanced practitioners, it constrains your progress and adds no functional value to your fighting skills. Jon Bluming said it best, something to the effect of, "it takes up time, and the money rolls in."

8. Karate Doesn't Prepare You for the Street

Unlike a sparring match, there are no rules on the street, no time-outs, no referees to separate you; there's no sanctity of life. Street fights don't start at sparring distance; many times they suddenly erupt chest-to-chest, many times from behind without warning. Your attacker won't necessarily stop if you scream in pain. Unlike the smooth floor of the dojo, the street and pavement can be uneven, broken and contain dangerous objects you can fall over.

In all the years I spent in karate, there was never a word about fighting under adrenaline stress conditions, the use-of-force, gross motor skills, and absolutely no legal considerations. Karate is primarily concerned with the attack stage of the encounter; no mention is made about the pre and post-conflict stages. Environmental and situational awareness, preemptive strikes, what to do if you're hurt, do you run away, or make a citizen's arrest - these important elements have not been added to the karate curriculum. 

Many karate techniques employ fine motor skills; under stress these are the first skills that abandon you. To work under excited conditions, techniques must be simple and based on gross motor skills. If you've been in fights, you know that after a few seconds of wild striking, many people start grabbing each other and quite often fall to the ground. How is your ground game? Do you know how to fight in a parking lot at midnight, on sand, gravel, on ice on a winter's day? Training barefoot in a dojo doesn't prepare you for any of these scenarios.

9. Karate can make you Stiff and Rigid

For years people have avoided weight training for fear that they would become stiff. If they only knew the truth -- weight training actually makes you flexible and supple; karate can make you stiff! I've spoken at length to many boxing, kali, Brazilian Jujitsu and muaythai instructors and they all agree, karate produces a tenseness and rigidity that seems almost irreversible. I believe it's all those hard air punches and kicks, tense kata and deep immovable stances contributing to this condition. You see this state most pronounced when karate students take up reality-based defense.

10. Karate is Ineffective Against Modern Weapons

The term Empty-Hand says it all; the main focus of karate is on unarmed combat. They do practice traditional weapons however, but what use is sai, tonfa, sickle, and bo practice when you can't carry them. This is unrealistic in 2009, where attacks are mainly carried out with guns, knives and impact weapons. When you typically hear of karateka being hurt in an attack, it usually involves a knife or gun. Whenever we do seminars employing weapons scenarios, it's usually the most advanced karateka that get killed the quickest.

11. Karate Takes Too Long to Learn, and You Still Can't Fight!

In terms of effort spent, to proportion of effectiveness gained, traditional karate is one of the least efficient systems of any fighting style. Too much time is spent on the inanities of rituals and form. Most karate schools spend countless hours on kata or mindless sparring, as if this will prepare students for a real fight, but it doesn't. Free sparring in karate only teaches you to fight other (barefoot) karateka's in a dojo (school) environment. Kata practice is a primitive form of shadow boxing. There usually is no counter-knife, counter-firearms training, if it is taught all, it's usually presented in a rigid step-by-step process, having no relation to what a real attack looks like.

12. The Apotheosis of the Master

I've always felt uncomfortable with the semi-deification of the so-called martial arts master. It just goes against the grain of my western upbringing. My goal in learning fighting was not to become a supplicant of an old man with a tough reputation. I believe that's another reason why mixed martial arts (i.e., BJJ, muaythai, boxing, and Filipino martial arts) have become so popular. There's no groveling involved just mutual respect. In the west, a coach doesn't demand a special status, over and beyond his normal duties. A coach guides athletes in their respective sports. His goal is to encourage, goad and train his charges to success. He is the father, the friend and the teacher; athletes trust him and his judgment.

Bringing karate into the 21st-Century

To bring karate up to date I suggest the following: Besides the regular training practice add 1-day of reality based concepts and techniques. Engage in realistic simulations for your training. Consider the pre-conflict and post-conflict phases of the engagement. Learn how to speak to police and prosecutors, learn first-aid and how to do a self-triage. Learn to to adapt traditional techniques to the modern world. Learn awareness and how to live a lifestyle of avoidance.  

Why study karate at all?

I have no problem with people practicing traditional karate. If you love the art then it's your responsibility to add realistic street training to your program. As I said, I am not against karate, in fact more and more I am consulting with karate schools on how to add and implement reality-based concepts into their programs.


I spoke with Jon Bluming a few years ago about this particular article (he was awarded a 10th Dan by Mas Oyama himself) and he said he agreed with me completely. Read his comments below.

Comments from Jon Bluming

"In my opinion the old fashioned way of karate is not that effective anymore because to many now in the world have seen it, and done it. Just learning a good defence against the high kick, low kick and a straight fist waza and you find yourself in a bad spot. Also against a good streetfighter especially when the man knows a few good throws and some groundwork."

"Never do groundwork when there are many opponents. Even a worldchamp in the K-1, like Ernesto Hoost 4-times worldchamp and Peter Aerts 3-times worldchamp (all from my students Pan Plas and Johan Vos of the Budokai before) have no chance when you jump them and drag then to the ground, where they become babies."

"Now, the all around system that I introduced to Oyama's Kyokushinkai Honbu in 1966 is really the best and there are some real good fighters now with those ideas coming from Brazil and the Netherlands. Sem Schilt who decked Hoost several times."

"Ordinary and simple karate like shotokan, wado-ryu and shito-ryu is overrated for real self-defence. Kyokushin is a little better but all around fighting (mixed martial arts) like Kickboxing combined with karate and throws and followed up with groundwork is still MUCH better."

"In 1994 Matsui refused to take my challange to fight me in a boxing ring, me against him. The witness was Akira Maeda the former Ring champion and 8th dan in the Int. Budokaikan. I was than 61 years old. Now I am almost 71 and stopped fighting since 1961. The injuries are just getting me, but I still really love to teach the young fighters what you can do."

Keep up the good work [WR]. OSU . Jon Bluming . Kancho of the IBK .

About Jon Bluming:

Jon Bluming was among the first wave of westerners (after WWII) to study martial arts in Japan and Korea. He was officially awarded a 10th dan in Kyokushinkai karate by Mas Oyama, and a 9th dan in judo from the Kodokan. He was also instrumental in introducing and developing these arts in Europe. Since his early training, he always felt that karate and judo by themselves were incomplete. His idea, (back in the 1950's) was to incorporate striking, throwing, and groundwork; what would later be called mixed martial arts.

To contact the author email: info@realfighting.com

Check out Jon Bluming's sites: www.kyokushin-budokai.com