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Self-Defense: The Original Purpose of Karate

By Doug Walsh

Long before tournaments existed, long before commercial dojos existed and long before organizations existed Karate was different from what it has become in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the present day. It was originally an art of self-defense, which was also an outstanding form of exercise, as well as having spiritual values as imparted in the Shoto Niju-Kun and the Niju-Kun, both written by Shotokan Karate founder Master Gichin Funakoshi. While these characteristics still exist, some are more prominent than others and some have become emphasized less, as well as taught less.

With the advent of Karate tournaments and the availability of commercial dojos worldwide, as well as the familiarity of training in a dojo, with traditional attire being adhered to, as well as the possible risk of litigation by some, Karate is actually being taught less and less with inclusion of practical self-defense in a non-dojo environment and situation. While there are exceptions to this (such as some Okinawan styles of Karate, which put more emphasis on Kata applications, self-defense techniques and little emphasis, if any, on competition Karate) in some styles of Karate, it has become more and more so. The disillusion by some who desire something more “realistic” and “all conclusive” has unfortunately resulted in some Karate students leaving Karate to study and train in another type of or types of martial arts, which would seem to include self-defense aspects which Shotokan Karate does not. In actual fact, Shotokan is constantly teaching self-defense in daily training not only in formal training, but also in actual self-defense scenarios. But these scenarios and being less and less taught and possibly less and less considered and given thought.

But there were exceptions who never considered less of Karate as an art of self-defense first and foremost, which can also include other aspects such as those mentioned previously in this article. An example of one such person was Master Masatoshi Nakayama, Chief Instructor of the Japan Karate Association from May of 1949 until his passing in April of 1987. Nakayama Sensei was of the opinion that Karate had many purposes, as well as established Japan Karate Association tournament rules and regulations after much experimentation and thought. Indeed, Nakayama Sensei was firmly of the opinion that it was only through correct proper basic techniques that one could become proficient in Karate. He was also an advocate of tournament competition in Karate, as long as tournaments never became the sole reason for one’s training. “Strong basics first. Tournament later,” he stated on at least one occasion. However, Nakayama Sensei never lost sight of, nor underemphasized, the utmost importance of Karate as an art of self-defense.

From 1963-66, Nakayama Sensei published a series of 4 books entitled Practical Karate. Each volume has a different subject and emphasis.

Book I is subtitled Fundamentals. In it, the fundamentals of Karate are displayed with the idea that one must know the fundamentals of Karate before applying their techniques. This book was written largely for the layman who may have never had any opportunity to train in Karate formally (it should be remembered that these books were written and published in the 1960’s – a time when Karate was still not established worldwide).

Book II is subtitled Against the Unarmed Assailant. In this book, several scenarios are shown, with various means of self-defense. Some of these include situations not only in standing positions and walking, but also in sitting in a chair with attacks happening from various possible directions, as well as on non-consistent levels, such as steps.

Book III is subtitled Against Multiple Unarmed Assailants. So often in daily dojo training, we are only facing a single opponent. In this book defense against more than one opponent are given, which are shown attacking from numerous possible directions and numerous types of scenarios, too many to mention.

Book IV is subtitled Against Armed Assailants. Defenses against selected types of weapons are given, such as defense against a knife, defense against a stick, a baton and a broken bottle. These are all shown in numerous possibilities of which the weapon may be employed by an opponent.

Book V is subtitled For Women. Nakayama Sensei wrote this book especially for women, with strong emphasis on defense scenarios such as wearing a dress, wearing high heel shoes and other factors. Emphasis is also given to the importance of not being overwhelmed, although the attacker may be male and possibly much stronger than the average woman.

Book VI is subtitled In Special Situations. This book encapsulates what has been taught in the previous books, but with even more situations as the subtitle implies. Defense while having one’s hands and/or arms being tied, defense inside of an automobile as a driver or as a passenger, defense while getting into or out of an automobile, defense against more weapons, such as a razor, a switchblade, a chain and a pistol. Even more multiple opponent situations are also addressed. There are situations that may not be given much thought by the civilian, and possibly the Karate-ka.

In each book the following are given:


1. Never underestimate your assailant. Always assume he is dangerous.

2. Stepping, weight shifting, and body turning are the keys to avoiding an assailant’s

attack and bringing him into position for your counterattack.

3. Turn your body as a unit, not in isolated points, for maximum effect.

4. If the ground is rough, bumpy, or slick, you may be unable to maneuver as you would

like. Simple weight shifting and twisting of your hips may be all that is possible.

Don’t get too fancy in your footwork.

5. Your body can only act efficiently in karate techniques if you make it in a stable

foundation, working from braced feet and a balanced position as you deliver your


6. Coordinate your blocking or striking action to the assailant’s target area with your

stepping, weight shifting, and body turning for maximum effort.

7. Do not oppose superior power with power, but seek to harmonize it with your body

action and direct it to your advantage.

8. Seek to deliver your striking actions to the assailant’s anatomical weak points (vital

points) rather than to hard, resistant areas.

9. After delivering the striking action to your assailant’s target area, you must never

loose (sic) sight of him and you should be constantly alert for a continuation of his


10. Use discretion in dealing out punishment to any assailant. Fit the degree of punishment to the situation.

The authors give their own thoughts on the back cover of Book I Fundamentals.

M. Nakayama: Many readers will insist that there are mysteries in the art of self-defense. After considerable practice and research, I find that, if any, of the secrets can be summed up in the proverbs: “A wise man avoids danger" and “To run away is the best way to win.” Yet, sometimes you are not able to choose these courses. I select here several techniques which you will be able to master with comparative ease, thus protecting yourself more effectively against any unarmed assailant.

D. Draeger: Self-defense contact with an assailant is a risky affair at best and should only be chosen if there is no other course open to you. Regardless, properly learned karate techniques responses will teach you to face emergency attack situations or to run-both with confidence. The few minutes a day you must spend in practice will never be wasted.

Another remarkable point is that demonstrations are given in regular clothing and in non-dojo locations. Nakayama Sensei is often in dress clothes; often wearing a coat, tie and dress shoes. Some take place indoors and many take place outdoors, some on concrete, some on rough surfaces and some on grass.

These books are co-authored by Donn F. Draeger, who was a personal student of Nakayama Sensei, a student of several Japanese martial arts and a longtime resident of Japan. Donn appears in many of the photos as an attacker, along with a few others, including Moving Zen author C.W. Nicol. Nicol was an Englishman who also lived in Japan for several years and eventually became a resident of Japan.

These excellent books are highly recommended.

Indeed, Karate remains an outstanding form of self-defense and it must be preserved as such.


Practical Karate I-IV by M. Nakayama & Donn F. Draeger

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE MASTER: Masatoshi Nakayama by Randall G. Hassell


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