Martial artists often debate the question, “Which is the best martial art?” Of course, the question needs to be fleshed out a bit: best for what? Usually this means, which is the best for self-defense?

I don’t really know the answer to this, or even whether there IS an answer, because so much depends on who the teacher is, their instruction methods, and which version of the given martial art are they teaching. I can say with some confidence what the answer is not, and that is Shotokan Karate, the style that I practice and teach.

It’s worse than that. I often consider whether, in teaching strict Shotokan, not only are my students failing to learn much about self-defense, but that they might be learning in a way that is actually counter-productive to good self-defense skills.

(Note: We practice a whole lot of other things besides traditional Shotokan, but I’m writing in consideration of the time we do spend on that type of training.)

I talk about this in classes often. Shotokan Karate is the descendant of an empty-handed fighting style that made the jump from Okinawa to Japan in the 1920s. It evolved to a modern “style” of sport karate that gained enormous popularity in mainland Japan and then, after the World War, spread to almost all corners of the world within a few decades. Today it remains the most popular style of Japanese karate.

During this evolution “Shotokan” was shorn of many of its practical combat features and it was repurposed as a physical education program and competitive sport. As the techniques and stances were named and refined throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, a body of research in exercise physiology grew up at the same time and karate was also studied for its speed and power-generating properties.

In “The Textbook of Modern Karate,” a 1984 book by renowned Shotokan master Teriyuki Okazaki and Milorad Stricovic, every technique and stance in the Shotokan repertoire is analyzed from a sports physiology perspective and its proper method of execution is described with the exactitude that is a characteristic of the Japanese martial arts. (And everything else the Japanese do, but that’s another topic altogether :-] ). This documentation of the way Shotokan was already being practiced no doubt influenced many Shotokan instructor training programs.

I began study of Shotokan in 1986, and I can certainly attest that by that time, and probably long before, it was already being taught that there was one exact way to do everything. Every small error was meticulously corrected until each stance was the proper shape, size, and height, and each technique was performed with the prescribed trajectory and with the correct final placement.

A certain personality type, such as mine, absolutely loves that aspect of karate, the attention to every detail and the constant refinement needed to make it “right.” My most dedicated students have that same perfectionist trait. This quality finds its highest expression in the performance of kata for demonstration or competition.

I have little doubt that the Shotokan instructors and pioneers who rationalized this precision ended up finding the most efficient way for generating power at the target, given a person’s body size, weight, muscle mass, etc. In other words, based on your individual size and strength, by following these principles of movement and placement that the Japanese developed, and of course with proper breathing and relaxation, you will maximize the power that you are capable of delivering to the target.

However, this method of teaching, i.e., insisting on perfection, which I myself do when teaching, comes with costs in regard to developing the skills and mindset needed for self-protection ability. There are a lot of drawbacks to our kind of practice and even the final versions of the techniques that were settled on.

For one, we train to deliver techniques in low, large stances with our legs wide apart. This is impractical and even dangerous from a self-defense point of view. We deliver techniques over large distances, in the sense that we generally step to deliver them, and this maximizes the power. However, self-defense occurs at very close quarters in which stepping is usually not possible.

We deliver most of our kicks above the waist — again not practical, and dangerous. Shotokan is known for doing techniques over a large range of arm or leg motion — this maximizes their speed and thus the power they deliver. In a self-defense fight, there may no time for those large motions of the joints. Also, Shotokan has a half-dozen or so techniques commonly practiced as “blocks,” but there is little time for blocking in a fight and these techniques are better characterized as strikes or grabs in preparation for a strike or a throw.

Further, by insisting that techniques be delivered in exactly the prescribed way, we may be inadvertently teaching them that a technique that landed powerfully on the target (or would have, if there were a target) and yet didn’t follow the correct trajectory, was unsuccessful. In the chaos, adrenaline rush, and close quarters of a self-defense encounter, there are going to be no “correct” techniques, just techniques that either work, or they don’t.

At the very least, we have to sometimes step out of the strict form and just pummel something.

Not only the form in which the techniques are prescribed, but the way in which we practice can also be counter-productive to self-defense. First of all, the environment — well-lit, flat surfaces, plenty of room, no obstacles or improvised weapons. The opponent attacks us with karate techniques rather than the way an assailant would attack. And of course we know an attack is coming and even, normally, we know which attack is coming. These factors, and more, make it very unlike an encounter with a violent predator or predators.

In the safety of the dojo and with the nature of the “attack” that we know ahead of time, the cascade of hormones associated with “fight or flight or freeze” does not happen. Thus we don’t have the sensory, fine motor, and cognitive limitations that this hormone rush imposes on us in the fear and chaos of an assault. In an actual violent encounter, you probably won’t be able to perform those nifty double-handed techniques, combos, spins, jumps, and sweeps that you perfected in the dojo.

In summary, Japanese karate has evolved in its techniques and training methods to allow its practitioners to deliver a fearsome amount of power to a target at high speed. However, in the conditions of a self-defense encounter — not a fight of mutual consent, but one in which one’s life is under threat — it is extremely unlikely that one would have the time and space, and be in a mental and physical state, where one could deliver techniques with anywhere near the power and speed that they were able to muster in the safe conditions of the dojo.

I don’t have any grand conclusion. I am constantly studying these issues and reconsidering my teaching curriculum and methods in light of them. I want to help students to become more aware of the limitations of our training, and for them to help me think of how to push past those limitations.

UPDATE: Just saw this video. Kind of related to this post: What Martial Art Hits the Hardest?