For Street Self-Defense, There Is No Better Martial Art Than Shotokan Karate

For Street Self-Defense, There Is No Better Martial Art Than Shotokan Karate

Gichin Funakoshi created shotokan karate as an art of self-defense, not a means of sporting competition. Five black belts explain why it works so well both physically and mentally.

You're alone on a city street at night, the prey of an attacker determined to do you in. Without a hint of fear, he approaches you, demanding your money and threatening your life. 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 mixed-martial arts 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 an attacker just as effectively.

James Field, shotokan karate, seventh-degree black belt

Firm Foundation

One of karate's most esteemed and disciplined styles, shotokan was founded a century ago by Gichin Funakoshi, an unassuming man who possessed a passion for not only the martial arts but for calligraphy, as well. 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, Funakoshi 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, Funakoshi's “20 Principles of Karate" have guided the martial arts. Few documents, in fact, have had such a profound impact on modern karate. And although most of 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."

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.


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 Japan Karate Association, Field (above) 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 traditional training, shotokan practitioners try to avoid coming to blows with an attacker. 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," 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, 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 in shotokan. “Awareness, not size or physical strength, is your first priority in self-defense."

Mary-Beth Macaluso (above) 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 Hegedus by surprise but taught him that simple, direct self-defense techniques usually work best.

“We weren't allowed to hit anyone first," recalls 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."

Macaluso also keeps her moves 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."

Sense of Self

Build your self-confidence. Confidence in your ability to fight back largely determines if you'll survive an attack unscathed. Schwartz's self-assurance received a wake-up call early in her training. “At one tournament, my opponent roundhouse-kicked me in the cheek," she remembers. “What did I do? Did I get mad? Did I fight back fervently? No. I started to cry. But sometimes you need to be hit. You need to feel it so you won't be afraid."

Field remembers how his self-confidence blossomed during his training. Several days before an important tournament, he discovered he would have to spar with someone known for his match-winning front kicks. “When my instructor learned I was going to face this guy, he had me practice a particular counter-technique over and over," Field recalls. “Predictably, when that opponent and I squared off, he tried to front-kick me, but I stopped him with the counter-technique I had practiced. That really boosted the confidence I had in myself."

Practice makes perfect. The repetition and discipline shotokan requires increased Hegedus' self-confidence exponentially. As a beginner, he became nervous just thinking about being assaulted on the street. Like many people untrained in self-defense, he wasn't sure what to do if attacked.

“But shotokan training taught me to control myself," he says. “It taught me to stay calm and, most important, to remain confident during a fight."

Perhaps the biggest confidence builder for Hegedus was the continuous repetition of basic techniques throughout his shotokan workouts. It taught him to manage his emotions and actions, which eventually helped him control his nervousness.

Automatic Pilot

If you must think about how to fight back, it's usually too late. While you're busy plotting your next move, your assailant will beat you senseless. That's why the best self-defense moves are automatic. It is a concept Field can't emphasize enough.

“When shotokan students practice basic sparring, we try to develop reaction," he says. “Ideally, when you're attacked, you'll react automatically. The further you go in your shotokan training, the more your techniques will become reactions. They'll become second nature to you. At the junior level of training, you learn basics. But when you graduate to the upper level, you learn the reaction of application."

Hegedus agrees. His technique was so precise when he was attacked in Hungary that he didn't need to think about his response. “When my attacker tried to hit me, my arms suddenly blocked," he recalls. “And when I hit him, I knew what my target was and how I was going to strike. It was like my arms had eyes."

Unseen Advantages

Maintain an average appearance. Boxers and grapplers look tough — like fighters. Similarly, weightlifters, bodybuilders and other muscular athletes are usually big and strong enough to defend themselves. But shotokan practitioners can fool you because they often look like average people. That's good, though, because it gives them an added advantage.

It took Field several years to realize this. “Throughout training, your body develops in ways you don't recognize," he observes. “For example, when you repeatedly practice punching, you become strong, but you don't see it. It's not like lifting weights because your physique doesn't change much. Yet you become strong and toned — much more so than average people on the street."

Monitor your mind-set. Wouldn't it be great if you could prepare yourself for an attack whenever you train? Shotokan students do that when practicing their techniques.

For Macaluso, this is one of the art's most appealing assets. “When we train, we're as serious as we would be during a life-and-death struggle," she explains. “Our mind-set throughout each session is that we're really defending ourselves. We're conditioning our minds to see our attackers and to fight them with every move we make."

Weigh Your Options

You don't have to surrender your life if you are being mugged. You have options. A hand-to-hand battle with a vicious thug would terrify anyone, but if you're prepared, you can prevent such a catastrophe — or at least fight back and escape.

Your choices? At one extreme, you could become a recluse, shutting yourself off from the rest of the world. But that wouldn't stop someone from invading your home and attacking you. At the other extreme, you could hire bodyguards — if you could afford them. As a third option, you could arm yourself. Plenty of legal weapons are available. However, you must be trained to use them effectively and safely. And what if you can't get to your weapon in time?

The martial arts provide a safe, practical and effective fourth option. Many fighting systems can do the job, but none does it better than shotokan.

(Photos by Sara Fogan)

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