RRSKC Frequently Asked Questions


This question and answer page has been prepared in order to explain many of the more difficult to understand aspects about karate training for people who have never set foot in a karate club before and for people who are just beginning to take lessons in karate. It should also be useful in providing some much needed information for people who have been practicing karate for some time, but have never sat down and tried to read very much on the topic. If you are about to watch a karate class, or if you just have watched a karate class, and you have some questions, they are probably contained within this package of information.

Usually the excitement and nervousness that accompany the first visits to a karate school manage to erase the memories of those many questions that you had intended to ask. Hopefully you will find some answers within these pages.


What is Karatedo?

Do (pronounced "doh") is a Japanese character that means road, way, path, or method. It can also be pronounced "michi." Therefore, some people who like to think of their Karate as almost being a lifestyle might refer to it as Karate-do. Do refers to the underlying philosophy of a martial art. Do is the essence of the broader scope of training that emphasizes humility and character development.


What is Shotokan Karate?

Shotokan is the kind of Karate that was founded by Funakoshi Gichin when he arrived in Japan from Okinawa. It was the first karate to arrive in Japan from Okinawa, and is known for producing very highly trained Karate players who are both fast and strong. This is the kind of Karate taught by the Japan Karate Association in Japan. The characteristics of Shotokan karate training include an emphasis on proper understanding and performance of body mechanics. The greatest advance to Shotokan training from the JKA was the extensive scientific study of karate techniques to determine their maximum effectiveness using physical principles. This emphasis provides the proof and resulting confidence that Shotokan karate is an effective, no-nonsense method of physical training and self defense. This emphasis has become a distinguishing characteristic of Shotokan style karate. Shotokan karate instructors are usually extensively trained in an understanding of body mechanics and are qualified in exercise prescription.

There are four major styles of karate in Japan at present: Shito, Goju, Wado, and Shotokan. Shito-Ryu has more kata training, some weapons training, and less training in pure technique than Shotokan. Goju-Ryu uses higher and narrower stances in some cases, fewer kata, and more strengthening and conditioning training than does Shotokan. Wado-Ryu is an offshoot of Shotokan that incorporates less kata, kumite, and basic technique and more jujutsu holds and locks. All four styles are rooted in the same karate, but each takes a different strategic view of fighting and training for optimal abilities. The Shotokan view is that purity of raw technique is most important. The idea behind this is that one, elegant technique will finish off the opponent. In situations where there are multiple opponents, such ability is believed essential because there may not be time to throw more than one technique per opponent. Therefore, each technique is maximized at the expense of learning more complicated defenses.


What does Shotokan mean in English?

The word Shotokan is composed of three kanji characters in Japanese. They are properly pronounced SHO (with a long “oh” sound), TO (with a long “oh” sound), KAN (pronounced “kahn”). The Sho character is taken from the word matsu which means pine tree. To is the character for waves. Pine Wave is the sound that pine trees make when the wind blows through their needles. The founder of the style, Funakoshi Gichin, used to sign his works of calligraphy with this name. The word kan means building, and in 1939 Funakoshi’s students built the world's first freestanding dojo in Japan. They named it The Shotokan in honor of Funakoshi - The Building of Pine Waves. However, the people who do Shotokan usually just refer to their art as karate. Outsiders describing the style in comparison to others usually use the word Shotokan.

The Rochester Recreation Shotokan Karate Club (RRSKC) is the governing organization which coordinates Instructor Training and certification, records rank, and provides for training seminars and camps.

The Rochester Recreation Shotokan Karate Club was organized and begun by Sensei Warren in 1985. The club has always been associated with the Department of Recreation and Youth Services. They share the same community service philosophy.


Is Karate difficult?

Yes and no. Karate can be a very difficult undertaking if you are out of shape, fat, overweight, and have never exercised a day in your life. Karate places great stress on the joints and muscles. It is easier for small people, people in excellent physical condition, and naturally athletic people to begin karate lessons than obese or non athletic persons. Karate is not only difficult in the realm of exercise, but it is also difficult in the area of coordination and flexibility. People with stiff, weak muscles are forever fighting those muscles for control over their limbs. This is of course truer with new students more than 30 years old. Coordination is a problem for some young people in that they frequently mistake right for left, yet this is usually taken care of by steady training over the first three months of lessons.


Will I get injured learning Karate?

Surprisingly, the incidence of injury during karate training is lower than that of other sports. The potential to get injured is always present and usually due to mistakes. Injuries are almost always the fault of the person injured, however. Failing to pay attention during a sparring exercise, and failing to listen to instructions, cause the most injuries. However, most Karate enthusiasts report that they are injured much more often at home doing simple things like going up and down stairs, dropping things, and performing other daily activities. Receiving extreme injuries such as broken limbs should never happen and is extremely rare. Great care is taken by instructors to design training that are safe, relatively painless, and fun.

Our instructors are taught to maintain strict control and limit circumstances where injuries may happen. They are also trained in first aid to treat any accidental injuries should they happen. Types of more common injury include bruises, sprains, stubbed toes and perhaps a bloody nose. Fractures and pulled muscles describe the worst injuries to date.


How long do classes last?

Scheduled classes for juniors are designed to be one hour in duration. Adult and advanced student classes typically last for one and a half hours. Team training or specialized self  defense classes tend to be longer in duration.


How often do I have to practice to become an expert?

This depends on how and what one practices. Taking classes where one can get correction is an important aspect to learning anything new. Progress can be made with as little as two classes per week as long as one reinforces the concepts learned in class by practicing and reviewing at home.  Two times per week in the dojo would be a minimum, and training three times per week would be a good, healthy regimen for anyone. Balancing your karate training against your other interests in the outside world is an important aspect of taking up the art. Training in a new skill is cumulative, so training as much and as often as possible would be ideal.


What are the funny clothes that Karate people wear?

The white uniform is called a gi [g as in game] and is short for keikogi or practice uniform. It was taken from the uniforms used in Judo. Until the 1920's, there was no official uniform of Karate. The entire thing was the creation of a Judo instructor, and he also created the color belts that people wear as well. The Karate gi is lighter and weaker material than the average Judo uniform these days. It is also bright white designed for comfort, freedom of movement and for sweat absorption. Having a uniform is not required until taking the first examination but we do have them available in the dojo for purchase. Uniforms cost approximately $25.00 - $35.00 for average sizes.


What is a black belt, and how can I get one?

When the colored belts were added to the practice of Karate, there were three colors used: white (beginner), brown (intermediate), and black (advanced). The color  signifies a level of ability. Within each level may be a number of ranks. The black belt signifies advanced ranking, but there are many levels within the black belt category. A black colored belt encompasses a range of ten ranks called dan (pronounced "dahn") that are awarded every three to four years for progress in understanding of Karate techniques and theory as well as tenure. Most experts consider the first dan rank, the "shodan" to be a relatively low rank. Many instructors say that shodan level students are just beginning to learn about the real nature of Karate, and therefore are beginners themselves. The media began the idea that attaining the black belt is some form of graduation from karate lessons. The general public in Japan is just as confused by this as most Westerners.

One can earn a black belt by attending sessions regularly, and taking examinations from the 8th kyu rank (white belt) up to the 1st kyu rank (brown belt) every three months or so. Usually, after a certain minimum time has expired, (RRSKC = six months) you can take the black belt test. If you pass, after another few years you can test again for the second dan rank. Usually clubs or organizations issue ranks to people once they have passed a test. Some karate clubs award belts and certificates from only their club, while others are members of national or international organizations that issue the ranks for them. There is no single authority on conferring ranks, so distinguishing between these ranks is impossible.


How long does it take to get a black belt?

Between three and seven years in a good Karate school. Some people have earned their shodan rank in only two years and some months, but these people are extremely athletic and are very talented naturally. Some people take a very long time to earn any rank because they move around a lot because of their jobs. In our organization if a student advances at every scheduled examination it will take two and one-half years to be qualified to take a black belt examination. Because there is a difference in technical ability and technical knowledge, the type of black belt examination will depend on the age and strength of the student. The RRSKC policy on black belt grading provides for a junior level black belt under age 16. If successful the junior black belt candidate will be given Shodan Ho or a “step” shodan. Shodan Ho is considered a preliminary or preparatory stage for the Shodan rank. It is temporary and expires at age 16.  At age 16 the junior black belt holder may qualify to take the full shodan ranking examination. If successful, this rank will be permanent.


What is the highest rank in Karate?

It depends upon what kind of rank you mean. The highest possible rank is the tenth dan, but only one person generally holds that rank at a time. There have never been any Westerners to achieve any rank higher than 7th dan in Shotokan Karate. Usually the tenth dan is a Japanese in most organizations. Each organization might have its own tenth dan rank holder. Usually the time requirements imposed upon rank promotions ensure that only people over the age of 75 with more than 40 years of Karate experience can even hope to receive the 10th dan.

Many suggest that the highest rank is the 5th dan. (Master Funakoshi held this ranking) After this rank, promotions are largely based upon company networking within an organization and participation and contribution to activities.


Why do Karate people break boards?

Board breaking was invented in Japan as a way of testing the lethality of Karate techniques. Since a pine board 3/4 inches thick and 1 foot by 1 foot requires around 200 lb./inches squared to break it, the number of boards that a Karate enthusiast could break was thought to be a good test of the pressure that a Karate technique could generate.

Students in the RRSKC are not required to break boards. Many of the senior students may be seen periodically testing their skills by breaking boards.


Why do people do Karate barefoot?

It is a tradition. There is no justifiable reason for this other than the Japanese custom of removing shoes indoors. Many people seem to try to take Karate and pour it into a scientific mold, but in reality the techniques and methods of  Karate were created before anyone tried to scientifically test them, so the practices are really based upon traditions handed down from teacher to student. Being barefoot provides better contact with the floor and helps develop a stronger sense of balance.


Do I have to learn Japanese to learn Karate?

Yes, you have to learn some karate terms in Japanese. You do not have to learn very many, though. Counting from one to ten, the names of around twenty or so techniques, and a few expressions and you have enough Japanese to take Karate lessons in the West. Usually this Japanese is easily learned in the training sessions simply by hearing it daily.

The premise for learning Japanese commands allows those people who travel to be able to train in foreign non-English speaking dojo and be able to understand the instructions. Japanese becomes the common dojo language. Karate is inherently Japanese in nature. Understanding this and learning about the differences helps to develop a healthy tolerance to things that are dissimilar.


Is Karate a religion?

Karate is like a religion in some regards, but the Internal Revenue Service of the United States of America does not recognize karate to be a tax-free religious endeavor. The ways that karate is like a religion include a set of moral guidelines designed to protect the individual and the society, a group that meets in a particular location for a common purpose, ritualistic practice sessions and meetings, and a hierarchy of membership with increasing prestige and political power.


Karate is different from a religion in that there is no theistic teaching involved, there is no theory about what happens after death, there is no teaching about the nature of 'God'. People from various religious backgrounds participate together without conflicting with their beliefs. The activities are mostly physical and mental exercise with very little philosophical/spiritual content.


Is Karate violent and therefore in conflict with Christianity?

Yes and no. Certain people study karate simply for the ability to defeat others in hand to hand combat. Others study karate so that they can meet different people and 'belong' to something. Your internal reasons for your training are your own, and if you are training for an immoral purpose, then you may be in conflict with your own conscience. However, many people enjoy karate for the exercise, the stretching, and the fellowship without ever considering their position as being in conflict with any religious values. The decision about why you are training is personal and internal to you. There is nothing inherent in karate that is religious at all. If you feel that you are in conflict with a religious belief, it is your own fault.


How old do I have to be to do Karate?

The philosophy of the RRSKC is to allow students of all ages the opportunity to try training. There is no minimum age. Individuals will be evaluated to determine his or her readiness to train. Some four year old children do better than some eight year old children. Everyone gets a chance. However, at older ages and increased levels of maturity more is expected.


How young should I be to start learning Karate?

Some people begin Karate lessons in their sixties. Some of them have done quite well, too. There is no need for youth to take up karate lessons. However, youth is a definite advantage if your goal is competition or athletic talent. There is a marked contrast between those who began their karate lessons in youth and those who began as adults. Students train at their own pace and are not in competition with others whether they be younger or older.


Why do karate people bow?

Respect is the value manifested by making something or someone important. In a karate dojo this is demonstrated by the bow. Bowing is a custom in Japan. Because Shotokan Karate originated in Japan it has become customary for karate enthusiasts to follow this action.  The Japanese bow to express personal humility and a lack of arrogance. It is also considered friendly, like a handshake. Therefore, bowing in the karate school does not indicate that you worship anyone or anything.

Although bowing is not required either in the dojo or out of the dojo, not bowing indicates an arrogance or some level of disrespect. Bowing is a courtesy much like saying hello and goodbye. It is not required but is respectful and conscientious.

Bowing shows that there is a level of knowledge and understanding about the process involved in karate training. It indicates that one is willing to put themselves into the hands of someone they consider superior who will guide them. A rushed bow with no feelings motivating it has no true purpose. This conceptis referred to as SAHO and it is very formal.

There are some protocol for proper bowing. Traditionally it is the junior person who bows first and bows the lowest. He/she also tries to bow last. Typically one will not allow another  to bow last. That is why you see two people bowing continually until one backs away. (This resembles the bobbing  dog’s head in the back windshield of a car).

From a seated position, a junior will be aware of the returned bow and not allow his/her head to be higher than the senior. Therefore, they will not lift their head until the senior (instructor) does.


Do I have to bow?

Yes, it will be unavoidable. Avoiding bowing will be seen as being disrespectful and arrogant. You will be taught how to bow, and when you fail to do so you will be scolded by your superiors until bowing has become a habit. Some people try to claim that religious convictions prevent them from participating in many of the bowing rituals. These people are usually asked to cooperate or leave. Since Shotokan Karate is practiced using Japanese customs, and these customs have no religious significance, there is really no justification for refusing to cooperate on religious grounds.


How does one perform the bow properly?

You should look down, not at the face of your opponent. The Japanese think that looking up when you bow is very rude, as it shows a lack of trust. Hollywood has convinced many people that bowing is done while carefully observing your opponent. This is myth and legend. You would not bow to a real enemy, and you are not allowed to attack while bowing in karate competitions.

The bow begins quite formally by raising yourself up as if something is pushing up through the top of your head. Keep your heels together and your toes out at a 45 degree angle. Bowing should be performed from the waist, not with the neck. You should bend forward only about 30 degrees or so, hold for a half-second, then return to the upright position. Never rush. When bowing respect the intent and perform the bow properly.

One generally bows to the instructors when they enter the karate school(courteously saying hello and goodbye), when they leave the karate school, when they enter or leave the dojo floor, when they are about to spar with someone, and when they have finished sparring. There is also a ritual bowing performed at the beginning of the class and the end of the class to the instructor and to his instructor. This indicates a willingness to train hard or to thank each other after.

Depending on your instructor this may be a standing bow, or a bow from the "sitting" seiza position. Your seniors in your class will instruct you on the proper form of this bow.


What is a Sensei?

Sen is a Japanese term that means before or ahead. Sei is a word that means life, birth, or living. Therefore, the Sensei is a teacher. They are born before (perhaps into “karate training”); therefore they are thought to have knowledge that you do not. It is rude for someone to call himself or herself the Sensei, since this is a word used only toward an instructor, never by the instructor when speaking about himself. The word has connotations of respect, and showing respect to yourself in Japanese is a big fat no-no. The proper Japanese word to refer to yourself by is kyoshi. It is rude to expect others to call you "sensei." It is rude to put the word "sensei" on business cards, jackets, uniforms, and gym bags. However, someone senior in age to the sensei is respected by the sensei for his/her greater amount of life knowledge due to the advanced age and is treated with an equal amount of respect.


How should I act toward the Sensei?

Your instructor probably is very friendly and does not expect you to bow to him or to call him Sensei. However, it is the duty of the student to show proper etiquette in the karate school and to show respect toward their instructor. Generally, this is done by not arguing with the instructor during the class when they correct your technique or point out some flaw in your performance. Also, it is considered in poor taste to humiliate the teacher with sharp-tongued expressions or joking. Treat the instructor the same way you would a College professor or a high school teacher when you are their student.


Who are Senpai? (pronounced sempai)

In the strictest sense the sempai are mentors who take junior students “under their wing” and become responsible for their well being and training. In our dojo anyone with a higher ranking than another assumes this responsibility. The “protégées” are not chosen. Senior students or sempai should be showing by example how to act and how to train. Senior or more advanced students should handle the enforcement of the dojo rules. It is considered inappropriate for the sensei to have to deal with these matters. It is rude to expect anyone to call you "senpai." It is also rude to place the word in writing anywhere.


What is the Dojo Kun?

The rules of the dojo. There are five of these rules that have been passed down from Okinawan karate masters to the present. The purpose of the Dojo Kun is to lend some ethical justification for the practice of karate, and to guide children who practice karate in the proper way. The five rules are:

To strive for the perfection of character  -  Jinkaku Kansei ni Tsutomuru Koto

To defend the paths of Truth  -  Makoto no michi o Mamoru Koto

To foster the spirit of Effort   -  Doryoku no Seishin o Yashinau Koto

To Honor the Principles of Etiquette   -  Reigi o Omonzuru Koto

To Guard Against Impetuous Courage  -  Kekki no Yu o Imashimuru Koto

While these five precepts are present for training in karate, they are, to a certain extent, merely common sense guidelines to prevent injury and to encourage growth and development. In a sense they are the “bottom line” rules by which the membership decides to act as a group. These precepts are general guidelines for all aspects of ones life and not just while they are training. Each student should try to make a commitment to develop a strong character. Doing this helps make one a stronger upstanding person. The Dojo Kun helps guide one toward this goal. It is the “scout’s honor” of karate.



Karate Ranks

Why are the belts different colors?

The colors were designed, like merit badges in the Scouts, to provide a visible reward for continued progress in karate training. The color system was taken from Judo, as was the karate uniform, back in the 1920's. Before that, there were no ranks, and there was no uniform for karate.


What are colors used by major Shotokan organizations?

White, red, blue, yellow, orange, green, purple, brown, and black have all been used. Many times students will give their old belts to junior students when they get promoted. This is a true sign of respect and is considered an honor. It is felt that the donor’s spirit of effort in still held within the belt. Passing on belts allows one to honor the previous owner by training hard when wearing the belt.


Why are the colors arranged in that order?

The ordering of the colors is arbitrary, though most schools try to keep the first belt white and the last color belt brown. If you think about it, the shades of color go from light in color to dark. (The red and blue belts are for young children).This change toward darkness show progression toward black belt. Ironically, a black belt when worn long enough turns back to white.

The emphasis at the RRSKC is on skill and the associated rank rather than on the color of the belt. We do not charge money for belts that are earned. Some clubs may place a stripe on the belt in lieu of changing colors. The rank remains the same but may be represented differently from club to club.


What is the writing on a black belt?

Usually it has the name of the teacher on one side or your name, then the name of the organization on the other side. Usually the writing is done as a gift from your instructor when you make shodan.


Do Shotokan schools award something for getting higher dan ranks?

Yes. Usually new ranks past shodan receive a certificate. However, new belts and markings on belts are avoided. A 3rd dan belt looks exactly like a 1st dan belt in the Shotokan school of thought; just older. Shotokan emphasizes austerity and elegance...tacky pieces of electrical tape or embroidered stripes on an ugly red and white belt are not typical for Shotokan Karate organizations.


Why are there so many dirty, worn out black belts?

A beat up black belt is a sign of prestige among Shotokan Karate players. They are envied and sought after. Some belts are designed to wear out a little faster so that less experienced players can enjoy wearing a worn out belt sooner.


Why is an old woman that is not very skilled ranked higher than a young person with a lot of talent?

Ranks are not issued based upon comparative skill. Ranks are issued for tenure, loyalty, personal progress from previous ability, and as political promotions. There are no universally held skill requirement standards for karate ranks.


Physical Fitness


Why do karate classes need to warm up?

According to John Jerome in The Sweet Spot in Time (Touchstone, 1989), "When a muscle is contracted or stretched its temperature rises. In dynamic exercise, up to 80 percent of the energy that is chemically available to the muscle becomes converted into heat. As the muscle heats up it becomes, within limits, stronger and more efficient. The strength of the contraction increases, also within limits, with repeated stimulation of the muscle fiber, in part because of the beneficial effect of increased tissue temperature. Warm muscle fibers simply slide over each other more easily than cold ones." He goes on to say, "...teams have found that static stretching helps to avoid muscle pulls and cramps, muscles soreness can be diminished by stretching before activity and after activity is over."


What is a good warm up?

Most trainers recommend almost 30 minutes of warming up prior to rigorous exercise. This activity involves light, low velocity movements and stretching. Each class at the RRSKC starts with an appropriate session of stretching and warmup.


What are the different types of stretching?

There is ballistic, static/progressive, and PNF. Ballistic stretching involves quickly stretching muscles by swinging the legs or by bouncing in the stretch. Static stretching involves slowly and gradually stretching a muscles and holding the stretched position for 10 to 15 seconds. PNF involves contracting a muscle against resistance for 10 seconds, then taking advantage of the increased relaxation of the loose muscle to stretch it more.


What is anaerobic and aerobic activity?

Anaerobic activities are those exercises that involve high output of energy over short time periods repeatedly. Aerobic activity involves exercise that is less energetic but continuous in nature. For an activity to be purely aerobic, the heart rate must be kept in a particular range for at least 20 minutes. Examples of mostly anaerobic activities (nothing is purely anaerobic or aerobic) include American football, Baseball, weight lifting, and sprinting. Examples of mostly aerobic activities include long distance running, bicycling, soccer, and other constant activities. Karate training is primarily an anaerobic exercise.


Will weight lifting or running help me get in shape?

Yes and no. The demands placed on the body by Karate training are very specific. The muscles necessary for Karate are not those that are typically exercised by other activities. Weightlifting can be a fantastic addition to anyone's training regimen. The primary concern, though, is maintaining full range of motion of muscles that are exercised. Weightlifting, coupled with karate training to relax and stretching to increase flexibility, can be a tremendous benefit to anyone training in karate. It will increase your muscle mass, speed up your metabolism, speed up your execution of motions that you exercise, and strengthen your ultimate striking ability.

Most any supplemental activity can be of some benefit to overall fitness. But with time often being limited, those who want to develop good karate skills should do karate exercises.


What are the different kinds of muscle tissue?

There are three major types of muscle tissue in the body. There is red and white muscle tissue. Red, or slow twitch muscle fibers, are not very quick, but can hold a contracting longer. White fibers are fast twitch, meaning that they go from a relaxed state to a fully contracted state much more quickly than red fibers. There is a fixed amount of white muscle fibers in everyone's bodies, meaning that the ability to produce speedy movement is largely genetic. Exercise will not alter this number of white muscle fibers. Training can chemically improve the efficiency of the existing fibers, though, therefore improving performance somewhat.