You’re alone on a city street late at night, the prey of a ruthless attacker determined to do you in. Without a hint of fear or a sliver of conscience, he approaches you, demanding your money and threatening your life.
It’s your worst nightmare, and it’s coming true. Will you surrender and add your name to his list of victims? Or will you maintain control, fight back and turn the situation to your advantage?
Grapplers, Thai boxers and MMA enthusiasts claim their techniques can help you escape such deadly confrontations — and they’re right. But they’re not your only options. Traditional arts such as shotokan karate can help you repel attackers just as effectively.
One of karate’s most esteemed and disciplined styles, shotokan was founded nearly a century ago by Gichin Funakoshi, a slightly built, unassuming man who possessed a passion not only for the martial arts but also for calligraphy. “Shoto” was the pen name he used for calligraphy, and as he gained experience as a karate instructor, his fighting system became known as shotokan.
Already a revered instructor when he moved to Japan from Okinawa in 1922, Gichin Funakoshi eventually established himself as a worldwide authority on karate. While in his early 70s, he won an uphill battle to help karate become an officially recognized martial art in Japan. At the time of his death in 1957, shotokan was one of the most highly regarded martial arts in the world. It remains so today.
A System of Principles
Just as Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” have influenced religion, Gichin Funakoshi’s “20 Principles of Karate” have guided the martial arts. Few documents, in fact, have had such a profound impact on modern-day karate. And although most of Gichin Funakoshi’s principles have spiritual applications, they also relate to hands-on self-defense.
For instance, Principle 12 reads: “Do not think you have to win. Think, rather, that you do not have to lose.” Principle 16 recommends constant readiness: “As soon as you leave home for work, think that millions of opponents are waiting for you.”
Gichin Funakoshi suggests why shotokan is ideal for self-defense: The art offers total self-mastery, not just a mechanical system of blocks, hand strikes and kicks.
“True karate-do places weight upon spiritual rather than physical matters,” he wrote in Karate-do Kyohan. “True karate-do is this: That in daily life, one’s mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.”
Enter the 21st Century
However, the cause of justice often gets physical, and if you plan to survive a street attack, you need a martial art that can do the job. James Field, a seventh-degree shotokan black belt and one of the art’s most respected American practitioners, insists it’s up to the task. “Shotokan karate is self-defense,” he says.
A longtime affiliate of the prestigious Japan Karate Association, James Field has trained for 40 years and runs a popular shotokan school in Santa Monica, California. “We don’t recommend exchanging blows with attackers,” he says. “We don’t teach you how to fight per se. Rather, we teach you how to defend yourself.”
Given their strict, traditional training, shotokan practitioners try to avoid coming to blows with attackers. And if they must hit an assailant, they do it and escape. “If you do strike an attacker, don’t prolong the situation and exchange punches,” James Field says. “End the fight quickly and leave.”
Idealistic? Perhaps. But it’s essential to shotokan self-defense, which is grounded in fundamentals and not in cutting-edge sparring combinations. “Traditional schools of karate spend a great deal of time practicing basic techniques, basic sparring drills and forms,” explains Robin Rielly, a sixth-degree black belt in the art. “The result is the production of students who have superb technique and a thorough understanding of karate and how it works.”
Unfortunately, Robin Rielly sees too many instructors teach self-defense but neglect the basics in favor of free sparring. “This is a mistake,” he warns. “The ability to free-spar or fight well is the result of training and should not be the primary means of training.”
Accordingly, shotokan students learn most of their self-defense moves through forms training. This approach doesn’t make sense to some people — especially beginners — but all shotokan forms are chock-full of self-defense applications.
A Practical Approach
Remain aware. Most experts teach that awareness is the first step in self-defense. By knowing your environment, you can frequently prevent trouble. And if you’re forced to fight, you will usually be able to escape quickly afterward.
“When you walk into parking structures and other potentially dangerous places, you should always be aware,” says Kelly Schwartz, a second-degree shotokan black belt. “Awareness, not size or physical strength, is your first priority in self-defense.”
Mary-Beth Macaluso began her shotokan training 17 years ago so she could protect herself and strengthen her muscles. After training for several years, she discovered that the seemingly endless repetitions of punches, kicks and blocks made her more aware of her surroundings. “By training consistently and often, you become increasingly aware,” the second-degree black belt says. “It becomes like an instinct.”
Keep it simple. Whether applied in class, at tournaments or on the street, shotokan is simple and practical. Tibor Hegedus took up the art in his native Hungary almost 30 years ago. Soon after earning his black belt, he worked as a doorman in Budapest. One night, an aggressor made the first move on him. The assault took Tibor Hegedus by surprise but taught him that simple, direct self-defense techniques usually work best.
“We weren’t allowed to hit anyone first,” recalls Tibor Hegedus, now a fourth degree. “We had to wait until we were attacked, and when this guy tried to hit me, I was able to handle him easily with a few blocks and counterattacks. Shotokan is practical. It was designed for self-defense. Whether I poke your eyes or kick your midsection, I’ll strike your weakest point to protect myself.”
Mary-Beth Macaluso also keeps her self-defense techniques simple. “If you’re attacked, do the easiest, fastest technique possible to escape from the situation — even if you simply knee your attacker in the groin,” she says. “Do it, then get out. Don’t experiment with complicated techniques when you’re attacked.”
(To be continued.)
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