10 Disturbing Myths About Karate Everyone Thinks Are True
1: “Karate people break bricks every day.” We’ve all heard it.
“So… how many boards can you break?”
In Japanese, the skill of breaking bricks and boards is called “tameshiwari.” But few of us do it regularly. Some Karate dojos never incorporate tameshiwari at all.
Bruce Lee said it best: “Boards don’t hit back.”
However, there’s merit to doing it. Not because it looks exciting for demos, but pressure testing your physical, technical, and mental capabilities. A board/brick is a physical manifestation of your self-imposed limits. To crush it is to overcome your deepest fears.
It’s 99% spirit. But… it’s a myth that we do it “all the time.”
2: “Karate people have total self-control.” Listen…
I get bruises, cuts, and strange voodoo marks on my body after EVERY Karate class. Not because I’m a masochist. But because NOBODY has perfect self-control.
In the unpredictable realm of physical combat, total self-control is Utopia. Sure, we might strive for it. We might try to reach that dream of impressively holding back our punches and kicking a hair-width in front of our opponent’s nose.
But let’s face it: No matter how good self-control you have. Karate does teach self-control, and we typically have a higher degree of fine motor control than most regular people, but it doesn’t guarantee it. We still make mistakes – just like everyone else. And remember, self-control is mental too. To master yourself is the highest form of mastery.
3: “Poor farmers in Okinawa created karate to defend themselves against Japanese samurai warriors secretly.” Wow.
Ask yourself this: If you were a poor farmer in ancient Okinawa, working 12 hours a day in the rice field to support your family, would you spend your few free hours punching and kicking imaginary samurai warriors in secrecy to develop some deadly fighting system?
Sure. And I’m the Pope. You need a glance at any respectable index of ancient Karate masters to notice something interesting…
They were all scholars, aristocrats, or privileged families. Most founders of Karate belonged to the noble class (“shizoku”) of warriors (“pechin”), ranging from the low warrior caste (“chikudun”) to the high (“peekumi”).
Some masters even belonged to the “oyakata” (lord), which was the highest of the privileged classes before we stepped up to the royal ranks of “aji” (descendant of a prince) and “oji” (prince).
These were the titles held by the pioneers of Karate!
To understand how significant the caste system of ancient Okinawa was, I can inform you that a “pechin” (warrior class) was six times ‘higher’ in status than a farmer.
Here are some historical Karate masters and their social classes:
Matsumura Sokon (1809-1899): Pechin class. (Bodyguard of the king.)
Sakugawa Kanga(1786-1867): Chikudun Pechin class.
Soeishi Ryotoku (1772-1825): Oyakata class. King’s secretary!
Chatan Yara (1740-1812): Chikudun Pechin class.
Tawata Shinboku (1814-1884): Chikudun Pechin class.
Sueyoshi Anyu (unknown): Pechin class.
Chikin Seionori (1624-unknown): Oyakata class.
Chinen Umikana (1797-1881): Chikudun Pechin class.
Higa Kanematsu (1790-1870): Pechin class.
Chinen Masanra (1842-1925): Chikudun Pechin class
Kyan Chofu (unknown): Shizoku class.
Hamahiga Oyakata (1847 – unknown): Oyakata class.
I can keep name-dropping all day.
How about Motobu Choki (1870-1944)? Aji class (direct lineage to the king). Same as Chibana Choshin (1885-1969) and Yoshimura Chogi (1866-1945).
And don’t forget Yabu Kentsu (1866-1937). Shizoku class. Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957). Same. Toyama Kanken (1888-1966), Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952), Taira Shinken (1897-1970), Shiroma Shinpan (1890-1954) etc. They all belonged directly to a noble, upper-class family or descended from one.
The majority of Karate’s historical ancestors belonged to the elite of Okinawa’s ancient society.
It’s precisely like Funakoshi Gichin once wrote:
“Karate wa kunshi no bugei.” “Karate is the martial art of sophisticated people.”
Leave the farmers alone.
4: “Karate comes from Chinese Kung-Fu.” Sort of.
Okinawa – the birthplace of Karate – was an island influenced by tons of cultures, traditions, and martial arts practices during the Ryukyu Kingdom era.
This is because Okinawa’s location in the East China Sea made it an incredible hotspot for trade between different countries for thousands of years.
China was just ONE of the influencing cultures. However…
Since Chinese society in general, and its martial arts in particular, was held in very high regard during the formation of what would later be known as “Karate,” it had a bombastic impact on the local Okinawan martial arts community.
So, yeah, Chinese Kung-Fu did influence the early history of Karate. But that’s before it was known as Karate – they called it “Toudi” (“Chinese hand”). Karate developed later. It’s 100% martial art.
5: “Black is the highest belt.” Not exactly.
Although media often portrays the black belt as the “ultimate level” of Karate, there’s much more to the story. Sure, some people think it’s the end.
(I call this The Black Belt Syndrome: When people get their black belt and suddenly stop training, since they were so focused on hunting that belt instead of using Karate as a tool for exploring and developing their human potential.)
A black belt is just the beginning. Now the real training starts. Everything else was just preparation.
A black belt is nothing special. When I lived in Japan, I used to see kids with black belts running around everywhere. But for some reason, the Western world has elevated it into some dark, mysterious, semi-legendary achievement.
This is funny because I know Japanese masters who’ve given black belts to Americans after only a few months of training – to get rid of them!
In Okinawa, the highest belt is red. Few achieve it. Anyhow…
6: “You have to be athletic, strong, or flexible to practice Karate.” Oh boy.
I used to be chubby.
I wasn’t powerful.
I could barely kick above my waist.
Today, things have changed.
I look like a modern-day Greek god, squat 3x my body weight and kick so freakin’ high Chuck Norris asked me to teach him how.
All because of Karate!
(But only half-joking.)
You see, when I look back at my chubby, weak, and stiff self, I’m amazed at the results of traditional Karate training. But I didn’t even try. I just showed up to the dojo and consistently put the work in.
Still, I get asked all the time: “Do I have to be athletic/strong/flexible for Karate?” Not. You DON’T have to be great to start.
But you have to START to be great.
7: “Karate makes you a better human being.” Let’s define “better.”
What’s a “good” human being? Virtuous? Kind? Humble? Powerful? Courageous? Cool?
It depends on who you ask. That’s why I believe Karate is a personal journey. It would be best to decide for yourself why you practice, how you practice, and what you expect to get in return for your effort.
Karate will give you EXACTLY what you put in. Nothing less. Nothing more.
If you pour your heart and soul into Karate, you might very well become a “better” human being. I sincerely hope so because that would make the world a better place.
But almost anything can make you a “better” human being. It’s not WHAT you do. It’s HOW you do it.
“Karate aims to build character, improve human behavior, and cultivate modesty; it does not, however, guarantee it.” – Yasuhiro Konishi (1898-1983)
8: “Karate people are self-defense experts.” Let’s be honest:
Some Karate schools don’t teach practical self-defense at all. They teach physical activity… which may or may not involve pseudo-self-defense elements. It used to be different.
The original purpose of Karate was to defend yourself in civil self-defense. But as Karate passed through history, it became subject to personal dogma and political agenda via the hands and minds of generations with different schedules.
Suddenly, the original purpose of Karate was confused. It became less about self-protection…and more about self-perfection.
“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of the participants.” – Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957)
These days, some Karate instructors NEVER teach practical self-defense. That’s okay.
As long as we’re open about it.
9: “There are weapons in Karate.” Look…
It’s right there, in the name:
“Kara” – Japanese for “Empty”
“Te” – Japanese for “Hand”
“Karate” = “Empty Hand.”
Yet, some people think we use weapons in Karate! How can “empty hands” hold weapons?
Let me explain: Before Karate was modernized, weapons were always practiced together with empty hand techniques. This aspect of training later became known as “Kobudo” (lit. “old martial ways”) and was standard procedure back in the days.
Today, Kobudo is practiced in very few dojos with the same quality and passion as their Karate. I think more instructors should learn it. Because a self-defense-oriented martial art isn’t complete without addressing the armed aspects of combat, ask any old master from Okinawa. They will tell you that Karate and Kobudo are like two cartwheels. It would be best if you had both.
Or you crash.
10: “Karate is difficult.” Lastly…
When regular people see Karate practitioners perform hard katas, flashy takedowns, deep stances, spinning back kicks, and other “complex” stuff, it seems good. But that’s a myth.
Good Karate should look easy! (Otherwise, you’re doing something wrong.)
I think people make Karate hard on purpose. It’s like a complexity fetishism. They see simplicity as bad. Instead of improving their basics, they want to dabble with advanced stuff – because it makes them feel superior.
The myth of complexity blinds them.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Remember this: The easy way is often the right way. If your Karate looks challenging, you’re probably not doing it right. Slow down. Think it through. Find a new solution. Try again. Breathe. Relax. Don’t confuse hard training with intelligent training.
Good Karate is sophisticated. That’s it!
By Jesse Enkamp