Is karate developing a soft persona?

Times seem to have changed plentiful since when I started Shotokan karate over 20 odd years ago.  Back then in the Karate Union of Great Britiain (KUGB), head guards were unheard of, let alone mitts.  Why then the change over the years to how karate looks to be heading?  Or is this the segregation and introduction of a karate sport that has driven wedges between traditional kareteka and “new wave”  practitioners of the martial art.

I cannot say that I definitely know the answer, but do have an opinion on the matter.  Over the years in my opinion we have adopted some negative traits from our American friends across the pond, one being a suing culture, which has spread to the UK like wildfire.  If you turn on the TV nowadays you have little or no chance of watching a programme without seeing some compensation no win no fee, injury lawyer advert, which I believe has had a negative impact on our culture.  The trouble is that I see a lot of these companies as driving out the very worst in our human nature.  A chance for a solicitor business to make money and hone in on individuals prompting them to act in a way that is very much money orientated and that makes me sad.  Call me an idealist, but trying to see the very best in people makes it difficult when temptation of money through false claims are so transparently advertised and splashed all across the media.  Now I’m not saying that all cases aren’t genuine, some are.  However if we genuinely feel that we need compensation for loss of earnings through ill health resulted in an accident that isn’t our own then I don’t believe we need to have such forceful advertising campaigns being pushed on to our telly sets.

What has this got to do with karate?! I hear you ask.  Well this very culture of suing has transformed the way karate instructors have to operate in order to cover their own backs.  This transformation in the sport of karate with regards to safety has come in to place to directly protect instructors teaching their pupils.  What is ironic about this is that the formation of a good teacher pupil relationship is based on that very thing, trust.  Unfortunately the safeguards being put in place almost seems as though that trust bond has immediately started on the wrong foot as every instructor is compelled to protect themselves from a financial claim.

For me personally all this health and safety has taken a negative impact on the way I feel.  I understand that times change and adaptations need to be put in place to progress with these changing times, but this change has been built entirely on the very worst in human nature.

Looking from the other side; Are these changes in fact a good idea?  Am I being too judgmental personally and seeing the very worst in people?  Maybe it is a case of safety implementations making karate more accessible to all.  The chance to give parents another option when choosing a martial art for their children to say “Hey! Look! We’ll make sure your child learns to defend themselves in a safe environment.”  This may very well be true and helps to lower the fear threshold of people looking to take up karate.  All I can say is that when I started I was still kept safe, techniques were and still are semi contact.  It has worked for hundreds of thousands of people all over the world up until now so why the need for change?  It’s not to say I’ve never been caught and injured slightly with a little bit too much lack of control with a side serving of my fault, however I can count the amount of times that has happened on one hand.  Incidentally, the three I can think of in 22 years has also taught me some of my most valuable lessons and has changed the way I do certain things in karate forever.

In conclusion there are various factors that have brought around this change.  When looking at it from one perspective it looks detrimental to the art, the other gives it a more accessible, karate for all outlook promoting inclusion.  To me though karate is, and always will be a fighting art.  That is was it is and one should take it up with the understanding that you may very, very occasionally get hurt.  If you don’t like it then there are many other sports out there to choose from.

I look forward to hearing everyone’s views on this.





  1. I think you have viewed something put in place for safety in the wrong way. Amateur boxing wear head guards. Scientific study has clearly shown that repeated impact to the skull causing brain injury can bring on a whole host of debilitating illnesses. Rather than harking back to the halcyon days of yore, we should welcome all the safe aspects modern technology and study can give us.


    1. Hello Atlantic karate, many thanks for your comment. I do agree with your statement with regards to boxing and headguards and that we should try to utilise technology for safety but only in certain aspects. Karate is different to boxing in that it is semi contact. Although occasional mistakes can happen I personally feel that the addition of headguards for infrequent accidents takes something away from the essence of karate do. I don’t think that the repeat full contact head punches you correctly describe in boxing relate to karate competition.


  2. I’d always go with the old saying of an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure though! I’ve witnessed enough none and semi contact competitions where competitors have left with concussions or been knocked out and suffered concussion. I played rugby for many years, and people talk of rugby players today being soft for wearing light shoulder padding and head guards, but I’ve been victim to enough injuries as a young man to wish it had been around then!


    1. I like that saying you mentioned about prevention and cure. I guess it comes down to an individual’s preference. There is also the need to appreciate the possible dangers of the sport one is taking up in the first place. Incidentally, I played rugby for years too. More personality similarities. I.didn’t used to wear protection as my brain possibly classified it as cheating in some way. After having lost a bit of weight since my rugby days though… Pass me the chest protector 😉


  3. I’m afraid I agree with Matt… Kumite in the majority of classes now seem to require mitts (which I find increases my chances of making head contact) and the thought of compulsory headgear horrifies me. Yes, head blows did land, yes concussions did occur and I’ve had my share, but head hits (prior to the introduction of mitts for safety) were less frequent because they pretty much ended the fight. Karateka aren’t boxers, the idea was one hit ends it, while although that’s a ‘nice to have’ in boxing, most contests end as a result of cumulative blows, so they need headgear. To be honest, if I was starting something now (as opposed to the 70s) I’d be going to an MMA class which (funnily enough) would mean repeated head blows were more likely – but they’re a lot more realistic that most karate classes at the moment.


    1. Hi Lyndon. Many thanks for your comment. In fact I didn’t actually take in to consideration when writing the blog that the introduction of headguards may actually promote the thought of head punches but since you mention it and thinking about my own training; I guess I unconsciously watch my control a little less for the thought that this protection is in place. Very interesting points, thank you.


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