Karate Terms: 5 More Words You Need to Understand

In the first half of this article, goju-ryu instructor and Black Belt Hall of Fame member Chuck Merriman discussed five karate terms you should know: bunkai, bushido, dan, dojo and kata. In this conclusion, he addresses five more essential karate terms — kumite, mokuso, rei, reishiki and sensei — that will benefit practitioners of all Japanese martial arts. (Go here now to read Part 1.)

Karate Terms #1: Kumite

Misunderstood meaning: sparring

Actual meaning: grappling or engagement of hands

Why it matters: Composed of two roots — kumi (grapple) and te (hand) — kumite refers to the instant a fight actually begins. It’s when you and your partner first make contact, Chuck Merriman says. “When you think about it, you’ve got to be standing right in front of each other when you touch. It’s important to understand the real meaning of the word to better understand what happens during oyo bunkai.”

Karate Terms #2: Mokuso

Misunderstood meaning: meditation

Actual meaning: reflection and contemplation

Why it matters: Practicing mokuso gives you an opportunity to get in the proper mind-set to train, Chuck Merriman explains. “It’s not meditation in the sense of going off into another world. It’s reflecting on your past training and contemplating the training you’re about to do.”

Karate Terms #3: Rei

Misunderstood meaning: bow

Actual meaning: spirit or soul

Why it matters: “For somebody practicing karate for exercise or sport, rei is merely a salutation,” Chuck Merriman says. “These days, people bow by nodding their head and slapping the sides of their legs, but that’s not the proper way do it.” The bow must come from the abdominal area because that’s where the tan tien (the seat of the soul) is. “If rei is ‘soul,’ obviously the bow has to be done from there,” he adds.

Karate Terms #4: Reishiki

Misunderstood meaning: spirit

Correct meaning: manners, etiquette or correctness

Why it matters: “[It refers to] the correct attitude — why you’re training and always keeping your mind on the path or way,” Chuck Merriman says. For example, you’re expected to know and demonstrate proper etiquette in the kohai-sempai (junior-senior) relationship. “Your sempai always precedes you. You open the door and let him go first. Before you take care of yourself, you always make sure he’s taken care of.”

Karate Terms #5: Sensei

Misunderstood meaning: teacher

Correct meaning: guide

Why it matters: Because it’s composed of the roots sen (before) and sei (life), the literal translation of sensei is “before in life,” Chuck Merriman says. “A sensei is somebody who guides another person. For example, if you went to climb a mountain, you’d probably need a guide. Why? Because the guy has climbed that mountain before, and he made it.”

It’s the same thing with karate. The sensei was once at the same stage of training you’re at, and he can show you the way up. If you understand what his role is, you will have a better idea of what you can expect from him and what he can expect from you, he says. “Think of it this way: A sensei is behind you, pushing you forward, not standing in front of you, pulling. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to progress.”


Whether you practice for exercise or are a fanatic who’s interested in every nuance of the art, it’s essential to comprehend the true meaning of the karate terms that describe what you do, Chuck Merriman contends. “If you understand [them], it fills you with a feeling of having something more than just the ability to kick, punch and block.” And that’s what practicing karate is really all about.

Story by Sara Fogan • Photos by Rick Hustead


The Meaning of Karate

Some karate students misunderstand even the name of their art, Chuck Merriman says. In the beginning, karate was derived from the characters kara (China) and te (hand), he says, but Japan changed the meaning of kara to “empty.” And over time, the hand emphasis of the art’s name has been replaced by kicks.

Kicks are more spectacular for spectators, he says, and in tournaments they’re awarded more points than hand strikes are. Consequently, students tend to work harder on improving their kicks and less on their hands.

All practitioners should review karate’s roots, he says. “I tell my students, ‘Karate is empty hand, not empty foot.’”

Read “Karate Terms: 5 Words You Need to Understand,” which is the first half of this article with Chuck Merriman, here.

Karate Terms: 5 Words You Need to Understand

For many karate practitioners, one of the most challenging components of the martial art is learning the nuances of the terms used in the dojo. Any instructor worth his salt can offer a one-word definition of each Japanese word, and that can certainly lessen the complexity of what’s being taught. But often a quickie translation isn’t enough to convey the true meaning of the terms that Japanese martial artists chose to describe the concepts of karate.

Unfortunately, the average student in the West seldom gives it a second thought. When he’s told that bunkai means “application,” that’s the end of the story as far as he’s concerned. Few have the time or the inclination to delve into the kanji characters that compose each Japanese word, says goju-ryu karate expert Chuck Merriman. “The misunderstanding comes from just physically training in karate and not really studying karate. The important thing is the kanji. They can mean a lot of different things depending on how they’re written.”

That lack of understanding often leads to certain words being linked to the wrong meaning, says the Waterford, Connecticut-based instructor. “The true meaning of these words isn’t important if you only practice karate for exercise or sport, but for karate-do — the physical, mental and spiritual study of karate — it becomes very important.”

In this article, Chuck Merriman identifies five often-misunderstood karate terms and sets the record straight on what they really mean. If, after reading his interpretations, you discover you were somewhat off track, don’t worry. You probably aren’t alone.


Misunderstood meaning: application

Actual meaning: analysis

Why it matters: When Chuck Merriman says bunkai is one of the most misunderstood terms in karate, he’s speaking from experience. “The first thing I do when I run seminars is ask people what bunkai means, and the first answer is invariably ‘application,’ ” he says.

In fact, the word refers to analyzing a technique by looking at the overall movement and breaking it down into the individual components, he says.

“Bunkai is not the obvious,” he continues. “It’s like having an outline that’s not filled in.” Furthermore, it can change over the years as your body, experience and depth of knowledge change.

There are three levels of bunkai, he says. The first, kihon bunkai, is basic. Everybody does the movement exactly the same way. It’s like learning kata, he says. The second is oyo bunkai. It refers to varying the movement according to your body size. The third, renzoku bunkai, entails a continuous action whereby you do one technique, then your opponent executes a different one. “It’s almost like fighting,” he says. “It’s a gradual progression, almost a free exercise, but it’s not sparring.”


Misunderstood meaning: warrior way

Actual meaning: military-gentleman way

Why it matters: Based on the characters bushi (bu — military, and shi — gentleman) and do (way), bushido refers to a method of training designed to enable you to protect yourself and others, Chuck Merriman says. The Okinawan interpretation isn’t aggressive; it’s defensive, he adds. “Bushido is not, ‘Let’s attack those guys.’

“The term sanchin means ‘three conflicts.’ The three conflicts are mind, body and spirit. That’s where the warrior comes in; that’s the battle. If you train properly, you won’t be so quick to take offense and jump into fights because you’re more secure in yourself.”


Misunderstood meaning: degree

Actual meaning: level, step or grade

Why it matters: When karate was introduced in the West, many people erroneously believed that anyone with a black belt was an expert, Chuck Merriman says. That may also account for their tendency to refer to dan ranking in terms of degrees. “It’s the furthest thing from the truth. There are different levels — from shodan, or first level, all the way up to 10th dan — [which mark your] progress throughout your career in karate.”

That’s one reason he’s a little skeptical when he runs into a 20-year-old boasting about his fifth-level black belt. “It doesn’t add up to the training time and experience you need to achieve that level of expertise,” he argues. “Of course, if it’s just for sport, everything is based on how many tournaments you win and what seeding you have. So, in that respect, you could be a 20-year-old fifth dan.”


Misunderstood meaning: academy, school or studio

Actual meaning: “way place,” a location at which you study the deeper aspects of karate

Why it matters: Derived from the words do (way, or a philosophical approach to training) and jo (place), a dojo is not just “a building where you go to practice karate twice a week because you don’t want to go bowling,” Chuck Merriman chides. It’s a place where you learn a traditional art and acquire a new viewpoint on life.


Misunderstood …

How to Prepare to Defend Yourself Against Real Violence When You’ve Never Experienced It

Telling other people how to use self-defense skills to survive a dangerous or potentially lethal encounter when you’ve never experienced one can be pretentious.

No matter how much experience you may have in the karate dojo, it cannot compare to those occasions when you’re facing an adversary bent on doing some massive or terminal damage.

Having said this — and admitting that, thankfully, I’ve never had to fight for my life — I will offer the following observations on the role karate and other martial arts can play in self-defense.

A major difficulty faced by normal people in violent encounters is that, with few exceptions, the behavior of the attacker just doesn’t make sense. If you’re walking down a dark street and someone sticks a gun in your side and demands your cash, you may be surprised. However, you won’t be confused because you understand the motive of the robber. (In fact, that very knowledge will probably keep you from walking down that dark street in the first place.)

But what about the guy who’s standing at the corner beside you, the guy who suddenly whirls and plants a fist in your ear? It’s unfortunate that unpremeditated, senseless attacks like this are becoming more common. Extreme examples include shootings in schools and workplaces. “The guy just went crazy!” is the usual description after the carnage.

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Walking down the dark street, you’re prepared for the potential violence that might logically happen. Standing on the street corner when a nut cuts loose is something you’re not prepared for, however. Nor can you be. You don’t want to live in a state of combat readiness 24 hours a day. It’s not practical, and it isn’t healthy.

What you can do is train to eliminate your internal rules that say all aggressive acts must “make sense.”

The guy on the corner suddenly attacks. Chances are, you see it coming — at least you’re aware of the oncoming blow. What slows your physical reaction is your mental reaction: “What’s he doing this for? Why’s he swinging at me? He must’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

Thoughts like those immediately form, and they keep on forming even if you’re still standing after the strike has connected. They’re perfectly logical. They occur because you’re a reasonable, rational human being. After it’s all over, they’re appropriate thought processes. In the midst of a violent encounter, though, they’re useless. You must learn to short-circuit them.

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“Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out!” is an example of silly, macho strutting that no one could take seriously. But you should adopt the attitude that you must deal with the attack now and worry about its motivations later on. Insisting that an attack “make sense” before you respond can get you seriously injured or killed.

There’s nothing much here to argue with, you’re probably saying, but what’s the answer? How do you learn to bypass logic and reasoning and let your body take over? You do it the same way human beings have always successfully trained to deal with unexpected aggression — through kata.

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Of course, the proven method hasn’t always been called kata. The military calls it basic training. The police use similar names. But on some important levels, it’s all the same. The routine goes something like this:

Repeat basic movements over and over. Instill them on a level where they’re nearly instinctive and work without conscious thought. Practice them in different sequences. Practice them against opponents who attack in expected ways and then, increasingly, in unexpected ways. Learn them so thoroughly they’re spontaneous and dependable in any situation.

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One of the primary goals of kata training is to integrate physical movements independent of conscious volition. It’s not easy, nor is it quickly accomplished. Despite ignorant criticisms of it by those who’ve never seriously undertaken the process, it’s the most reliable method for learning how to deal with the …

Who Is the Best Karate Practitioner in the World?

The caller’s question was simple: “Who is the best karate practitioner in the world today?” The woman on the other end of the phone line said she was a writer working on a piece for a general-interest magazine about the best practitioners in several sports and physical activities.

“What makes you think it isn’t me?” I asked.

There was silence on the line, so I tried another tack. “Let me ask you this,” I said. “Who’s the best musician in the world today?”

“Well, that’s really impossible to answer,” she said. “There are so many kinds of music.” Exactly.

There’s a natural inclination to want to know who the best is. In some aspects of life, we can make fairly accurate assessments. The best miler in the world has a track record as proof. In other areas, however, a qualifier like “best” is impossible. Such arbitrary assignations often cloud the issue rather than clarify it.

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In the karate world, we understand that dozens of schools and systems result from political or personal schisms. Differences over what should be stressed in training can also lead to further splintering of a discipline. There are forms of karate that vary so dramatically in their training, in their emphasis and in their applications that attempting to find a “best” among them would be futile. Where would you start with no more than the most rudimentary common ground?

Nonpractitioners often view the art in a monolithic light. If it features kicking and has black belts, it’s “karate.” The same can be said of ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging. For the majority of us, if we were presented with six different arrangements, they’d all look alike. Similarly, it takes a practiced eye to distinguish goju-ryu from shito-ryu. However slight the differences may be, we know they’re very real. We also know that trying to find the best leads to further misunderstanding about the true nature of karate.

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Once in a trivia game, I came across a similarly themed question: What is the highest degree of black belt awarded in karate? There really isn’t an answer. You can start your own karate organization and give yourself whatever degree you wish, but you’ll lack the credibility of established groups in Japan and elsewhere. So what?

A karate organization’s authenticity is entirely subject to the whims of the prospective student in this regard. Karate has been in the United States long enough and produced enough senior practitioners to no longer need a connection with Japan to establish bona fides. If someone less qualified tries to boost his reputation by declaring himself a 15th-degree black belt, there’s no big karate organization that can say he’s wrong or in violation of some law. And that brings me to my final point.

I recently saw a Western-produced documentary about a karate sensei in Japan. He was described by the narrator as a “master of masters,” and later on there was a note that he’d been recognized as such by the Japanese government.

The Japanese government cares little about the best karate teacher in Japan. Whenever its sanction is invoked in relation to karate, the reference is to what was once known as the Monbusho, or Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. In 2001 the Monbusho was combined with the Department of Science and Technology to form the Monkasho. It oversees nearly all areas of education in Japan — choosing textbooks, setting curricula and so on.

In 1957 the Japan Karate Association applied to be an educational corporation under Japanese law and be recognized as such by the Monbusho. In a technical sense, then, the JKA can be thought of as being sanctioned by the ministry and that, by extension, means the Japanese government. However, it’s easy to make too much of this.

Imagine that your karate group is renting space at the Riverport City Community Center. Because the center is owned by the city, you technically could say you’re an “officially recognized” form of karate. The JKA was able to convince the Monbusho that its curriculum, training and goals were sufficiently coherent and meaningful to be regarded as an educational system. This is admirable to be sure. However, it says nothing about the dozens of …

Steve “Nasty” Anderson Remembers the Decade He Spent on Top of Sport Karate

Steve Anderson is an icon in the sport-karate universe. The native of Toledo, Ohio, spent time in various parts of the country before settling in Southern California in 1973, where he rose to the top of the circuit and acquired the nickname “Nasty.”

The Black Belt Hall of Famer now operates two schools in Ontario, Canada, and oversees the instruction of some 500 students. We caught up with him for the purposes of this interview. We’re confident you will find his recollections as enlightening and entertaining as we did.

You started training with your first instructors, “Chicken” Gabriel and Reynaldo Leal, when you were 15. What was it about karate that appealed to you?

Steve Anderson: It was the Bruce Lee thing. Karate carried a mysticism back in those days. All the Orientals were doing it, and I wanted to have their speed and power. I wanted to be able to touch somebody and then have that person die in a few years. (laughs)

Steve “Nasty” Anderson (left) and “Chicken” Gabriel

How did you get interested in competition?

Steve Anderson: Chicken’s school was the most dominant one in Southern California — and in all of California. It was right there with the Black Karate Federation. We were actually a bit better, I thought. Rey was one of the top brown belts in Southern California, and Chicken was one of the top black belts.

What enabled you to build your phenomenal tournament record?

Steve Anderson: Those guys were so competitive, and that helped me set my sights on winning. I thought, If they can do it, I’ve got a good opportunity to do it, too, because I was a better athlete than most of those guys. So I started going to tournaments every week — even when they didn’t go, I’d go by myself. And I’d win and win. It was an addiction.

What was your first significant win?

Steve Anderson: It was in 1980 at a tournament run by Steve Fisher. That was where I first beat Keith Vitali, the No. 1 fighter. Then I beat him again later that year in the U.S. Top 10 Nationals in Stockton, California. Then I beat him in Atlanta at the U.S. Open in October of the same year. So we had three fights that year, and I won them all. Karate Illustrated rated me the No. 1 fighter in the country — in my rookie year.

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Where did you go from there?

Steve Anderson: I felt had to win every single tournament. Other guys would go through a year and win two major tournaments, but I’d win 13. I was the Tiger Woods of the time. I’m not bragging; the record speaks for itself. I went 18 months without a loss, from 1984 to some point in ’85. In ’87 I won my first seven tournaments in a row, so I thought I was headed for another undefeated year, but I lost two or three later that year. Unlike today’s fighters, I was winning overall. I’d win my division, then have to fight four or five more fights to be the grand champion of the tournament. There was only one grand champion when I was around. There weren’t three, four or five of them like there are now.

What do you consider to be the highlight of that part of your career?

Steve Anderson: Winning the U.S. Open in 1980. That pushed me over the hump and made me realize I was someone special. It made the people in Southern California recognize me. As a brown belt, I won 92 tournaments in a row. After I became a black belt, it wasn’t so much that I might lose a match; it was how badly I was going to beat the opposition. I didn’t just want to win; I wanted to annihilate the opposition. I didn’t hurt anybody, of course. It was the embarrassment factor, the way I would talk to them before and during the fight. I would tell them flat out: “You’ve got no chance. You shouldn’t have even come to this tournament. You’re a joke.” I wouldn’t say that stuff now, and if I had it to do all over again, I probably would not have done it then. But when you brag, you’ve got to back it up or people will be real hard on you. So I had to go out and pull off those things. Plus, I was broke most of the time, and I had to make my rent money.

How does fighting