Answers to some frequently asked questions

Absolutely. Everyone has to start somewhere. Even the most accomplished students were beginners once. There is no minimum requirement for fitness or coordination. Look at it this way: The sooner you start the sooner you'll begin improving.
For your first few classes loose fitting clothing you can move (and sweat) in is good. After a few classes you will want to wear a karate-gi (uniform) to class. They're easy to move in, and you'll be more comfortable. We order them for students at a discount, but you can certainly choose to purchase one elsewhere. It should be plain white.
It's polite to wear a white belt when going to a new dojo and ask the instructor there what he/she recommends. At SVSK we have very high standards, and we are careful not to advance students beyond their ability. Building a strong foundation will pay off later. Typically, after some evaluation we determine the best rank for each new student.
There is no uniformly established set of colors to designate progress in karate training. There are also no uniform criteria on which the grades are based. It's up to qualified instructors to judge. Some places have just a few belt colors, while others have many, each with different options for stripes or intermediate grades. Originally the belt color and grading system was adopted from judo by early karate instructors. In traditional karate there are generally fewer colors and higher standards to progress from one grade to the next. The belt colors we use at SVSK are:
  • white (up to three stripes for kids)
  • yellow (typically only for youth)
  • orange (typically only for youth)
  • green
  • purple
  • brown
  • black
Everybody learns differently and has to overcome different challenges along their path. In general, adults can reach shodan (first level black belt) grade after three to five years of consistent, frequent, dedicated training. It should take a minimum of 1000 hours of training with a skilled instructor to reach black belt.Our dojo tends to get people up the curve with fewer hours than elsewhere yet most other places require far fewer hours to reach the same ranks. So it is typical for people to see our students and wonder why our purple belts are often more skilled than brown or even black belts elsewhere...
In Japan, there are four main styles of traditional karate:
  • Shotokan
  • Goju-ryu
  • Shito-ryu
  • Wado-ryu
There are many other styles that are actually just as old, authentic and useful. But these four are the biggest and can all be found in many areas of the world. The contrast to traditional martial arts is generally more sport-oriented activities whose history is shorter and which don't emphasize the aspects of budo that we see in traditional martial arts. For example, TaeKwonDo was created only about 80 years ago, primarily from Shotokan karate. Today it is practiced mostly (though not entirely) as a sport. It is not that one type is "good" and another "bad." But the difference are sometimes more important than are visible on the surface.
Ryu in Japanese means "style." Shotokan practitioners in Japan haven't traditionally called the style "Shotokan-ryu," but recently more people are using the term "Shotokan-ryu" or "Shoto-ryu." They all mean the same thing.
Many of them are, but not all. It's now been nearly sixty years since the first Japanese instructors brought karate to the U.S. Since then some of their early non-Japanese students have themselves become very good instructors. And over the years a handful of very dedicated non-Japanese who moved to Japan for exposure to the sheer concentration of top-level instructors there have returned. Karate is very much a Japanese thing, and understanding Japan is important to understanding karate-do. But today some of the very best karate instructors in the U.S. (and the world) are not Japanese. The two main instructors at our dojo lived for extended periods in Japan; Keeling Sensei lived there for 8 years and Borda Sensei for 3+ years. Several other members of our dojo have lived in Japan or at least visited there.
Karate in Japan was developed and refined from Okinawan karate, which was based on various Chinese martial arts styles. Those styles in turn had origins in India. Japanese karate is usually said to be about 100 years old. But the Okinawan versions on which they are closely based date back well over two hundred years.
There are so many martial arts. One way to divide them is by geographic origins. Kendo is Japanese, while Kung-fu is Chinese. Regardless of geography we also can see similarities and some influence between the arts. For example, there are some aikido techniques found in karate, kendo sword movements in aikido, and judo moves used in sumo. Many of the techniques of Krav Maga are found in karate. Among the major traditional Japanese martial arts:
  • Karate - literally "empty hand," uses only the weapons found naturally on the body, primarily employing punches, kicks and strikes.
  • Judo - literally "gentle way," uses throws and pins.
  • Kendo - "the way of the sword," is all about how to strike with a sword.
  • Aikido - Very defensive art involving primarily escapes from grabs and holds.
There are of course many, many other martial arts. Krav Maga is an example of a newer "martial art" that focuses on aggressive self-defense tactics. It may be worth noting that our Chief Instructor has done Krav Maga at multiple locations and watched many hours more of it and has yet to see anything that he had not already done in Shotokan. For those interested in self-defense, specifically, we also offer self-defense classes.
In Japanese do is the path or the way, while jutsu is a skill or technique. There are -do and -jutsu variations of many of the Japanese martial arts. For example, judo and jujutsu both involve grappling maneuvers and many similar techniques, but judo is more concerned with the art form, where jujutsu focuses more on application of the techniques for realistic combat. We can see similar comparisons in other pairs of martial arts:
  • karatedo and karatejutsu
  • aikido and aikijutsu
  • kendo and kenjutsu
  • iaido and iaijutsu
We can see these all on a continuum between budo and bujutsu. At Silicon Valley Shotokan Karate children's classes are more about karate-do or the art of karate, but adults' classes are more evenly balanced with combat objectives (self-defense preparedness).
It's tradition. Karate used to be practiced almost exclusively at the home of the instructor, in private. Students would basically strip down to their undergarments to do their workouts. At that time in Japan undergarments were the lighter layer of kimono that other layers were worn on top of. Classes conducted in larger groups were usually done in uniforms -- either school or military uniforms. The karate uniforms, or karate-gi we see today were created about 100 years ago and are based on the thicker judo uniforms that had recently been developed. Later karate uniforms were mass produced. The original mass-production karate uniform manufacturer was Tokaido, still in operation today since 1958.
Questions during class are not usually tolerated at dojo in Japan, but instructors at SVSK welcome questions. You can also ask the students senior to you (your sempai) after class for help. Traditionally in Japan those with more experience (sempai) help those with less experience (kohai), and in turn kohai show respect to their sempai.

Questions we didn't answer above?