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Jan Knobel: The virtues of traditional karate vs sports karate


Sensei Jan Knobel


Sensei Jan Knobel has been practicing Traditional Karate for more than 30 years during which, he practice with many  Japanese master who are considered by many as legends. Sensei Knobel is a proven competitor having won the titles of European champion 2nd in Johannesburg during the World Championships 1993 and World champion in Greece 1996. He is also an accomplished coach, having led his students to podiums on several international competitions.

Sensei Knobel is the founder of the World JKA Karate Association (WJKA), a non-political organization that is based on the teachings and methodology of the Japan Karate Association (JKA) of the 1960's through to the early 1980's under the leadership of Masatoshi Nakayama.



You often mention the legacy of Nakayama Sensei. Why such adulation? What has he done differently from other masters that you only consider his ways.

For Shotokan (read JKA) people, Nakayama sensei has set the standard, so the traditional Karateka keeps following his standard. In religion we have the same situation. I am a Catholic by religion, so the Bible is my book to my religion. Traditional karate to me is a religion, so  the "Best Karate" series are my Karate Bible. Simple as that.

The first book of the "Best Karate" Series, written by Masatoshi Nakayama

If I had known Nishiyama sensei better and he had done what Nakayama sensei had done, than I would have followed him. Maybe Nakayama sensei being the appointed successor of Funakoshi sensei, gives him that status. We believe he has a right to it, without adulation or adoration.

We still say the English invented soccer and millions of people follow the English playing system. Same question, why?


What is the difference between traditional Karate and sports karate?

On a technical point of view there is hardly any difference between traditional/sports karate. Basics, in any style of karate, is the same. Either it is Shotokan, Wado, Kyokushinkai or any style. Difference starts in the performance of the techniques. I do not mean the body, but actually the mind behind the performance. Traditional karate is focused on self-defense, the killing blow or survival. Every move in traditional karate has a meaning, is mend to survive. The mind controls the moves, while the action itself is purely self protection or self-defense.

Traditional katas, though not as flashy as sports katas or forms, are encyclopedias of self defense techniques, at least, to those who have the patience and insight to unravel its treasure.
Photo taken by Zymba Vong

Sports karate is set on scoring a point in order to become a champion or to get a trophy. The traditional idea of self defense is gone. Ego and “winning” comes at the first place. Reality and surviving has gone.

These may sound aggressive and in this age out of order, but if this idea is focused on real life than a traditional Karateka will react more quick on daily life than a sports Karateka.

A traditional karate will go more directly to his goal in order to survive. A sport’s Karateka will not react, as he does not know that his karate is about mending to survive in the first place. I do not mean in fights, but more like job, Family life etc. Reaction practiced in the dojo can also be used in daily life.

The major downfall for traditional karate is the lack of the need to survive. Life has become too easy, especially in the Western World. Downfall to sports karate is the show. No fights but ShowTime.


What use is traditional karate in our modern world?

Looking at the bottom of my answer in the last question, I think that is one of the reasons traditional karate should stay.

Another reason is the mind training. Nowadays people do not have to fight to survive anymore. It has all become so easy in modern life. However we must not fall asleep, we must stay alert. We need this alertness in school and job situations. We need discipline to reach our goals. We need to respect the ones who went before us.


ZanShin, referring to a state of relaxed alertness, is part of the teaching akin to traditional martial arts.

Why do we have history? Why do we need history books? To learn from the past, the good and the bad. A traditional Karateka is prepared to fight, but he is also taught that fighting does not solve anything. A sport’s Karateka is taught to win a trophy and is hardly able to defend himself. Traditional karate teaches to be humble and strict. Sports karate does not.


Doesn’t sport karate also advertize as a teacher of humility and respect?

Go to a sports karate dojo. People walk around with ghetto blasters mp3 players etc. There is hardly respect or discipline. Traditional ceremonies are out of order and are laughed at. Young guns demand respect from their teacher as they find themselves quicker and better than their teacher.

This kind of attitude would certainly not have been tolerated in Japanese traditional dojos
Photo taken from

I had a tournament the other day in France. Being a referee, I ordered people to move away from the Shiai several times. One coach, who is part of an online magazine, refused to go and demanded respect from me. This guy is maybe in his late twenties while I am 60. A day later, I received an email from this guy saying that my interviews had been removed from his magazine because he felt insulted. That to me emphasizes real sports karate. No respect, arrogance and paper Tiger knowledge.

More reason to keep traditional karate alive.


Isn't it natural that a martial art evolves with its time? So wouldn't sports karate be a natural evolution of Karate? 

Did kyudo, aikido, judo, kendo etc. evolve? I do not think so. Why is it that more sport’s Karateka make a move to kickboxing, cage fighting etc. They miss something in their Karate and they were never told what it was. Instead of full body and mind control, they move to the vicious and aggressive forms.

People try to make a competition form of jiu jitsu. Until now it is still in a demonstration form.

If you want to evolve traditional Karate to modern times, then buy a gun. On a regular base I shoot with a gun in a shooting alley. To me this is not sports shooting as I know that, if needed, I can pull the trigger any time. So is traditional karate to me.

"If you want to evolve traditional Karate..."
photo taken by Cerebellum for wikimedia commons


Wouldn't it make more sense for students to practice defenses they may encounter in the streets by joining a reality based combat school instead of taking up traditional karate?

You may have a point, but traditional karate does not want to educate fighters as in the word fight. Funakoshi sensei always claimed that one should fight without fighting. If you practice traditional karate and in the process you built up a certain attitude that keeps attackers away, then the result is okay with me. I am 60 years and never in my live I was forced to defend myself in a real self defense situation. My attitude seemed to frighten attackers or made them back off. Who knows, but I feel comfortable about it. If you like money than please be my guest, challenge people in the streets and the next step will be cage fighting.


Isn't Judo, Kendo, Aikido and even Karate-do, or traditional Karate relatively modern styles? Could we not consider them as styles that departed from Japanese tradition?

I am not that good in history as I leave that to the “Paper Tigers”. I was taught that all Martial Arts come from Jiu Jitsu. To make it more acceptable for people the "Do" form was introduced. So jiu (or ju) jitsu became partial Ju-do. The grabbing/holding and throwing techniques. Kicking/punching became the Karate-Do part etc etc. But we still know Karate jitsu, Jiu Jitsu, Aiki jitsu and Ken jitsu. Those forms are the reality forms and can be practiced. The traditional Karateka practices in mind the jitsu forms with “Mind” controlled techniques. So you are right if you say "Do" is modern, but before "Do" there was Jitsu.


If one wanted to practice traditional Karate, wouldn't it be more logical for them to seek out a To-Te master? Or anyone who still practices Karate same way before Mr. Funakoshi modified it for the masses?

As I said before, it has nothing to do with modification or before Funakoshi sensei’s time. It is the approach of karate today. It is the difference between “Mind” Karate and “Trophy” karate. Tradition is regulated by the mind, not by success.

Gichin Funakoshi , hailed as many as the father of modern Karate-do

Would your opinion on sports Karate be any different if the participants would display some sportsmanship, courtesy and humility?

Do not forget that 40 years ago we did tournaments too. So 40 years ago there was a form of controlled traditional “sports” karate. If the proper attitude of 40-50 years ago comes back, I would love sports karate for younger people, As long as the real mind is back. So I can honestly say yes I would. Do not forget the older one’s get, the more jitsu karate becomes. The body is trained accordingly.


Are there any technical differences in the competition rules between now and in the 60's?

Technically, not that much. I mean a punch is a punch and a kick is a kick. Rules that restricted the Martial art and forced it into Sports caused the difference. Just look at the protection material. Some of the competitors nowadays look as if they are representing a tire factory (Michelin Man ?). With the input of protection material the control of techniques disappeared and new rules were made to prevent injuries. Karate was pulled into a circle. More or different protection gave more rules.

Kid getting ready for his sparring fight.
Photo taken by miltydotcom for

Could the protective gear be a part of the change in attitude of the practitioners?

In the 60’s we hit and sometimes we hit too hard. Big deal, say “oss” and keep on going. Nowadays people must be prevented from getting traumatized, whatever that means.

So outside influence caused the downfall of Traditional karate into Sports Karate. WJKA had his 2009 World Championship in South Africa. Also the World Karate Federation (WKF) was present and they threatened to withdraw if the rules were not changed. I myself challenged those guys and told them if one serious injury would occur they would get their money back. The competition was without protection and according the old JKA rules. Nothing happened at all. They were satisfied and astonished how this was possible without protection and protective rules.

Tradition is all about respect and technical ability. So if your technique is okay and your respect (read control) is good: No injuries, clean techniques, no protection needed.

Referee reminding competitors to have good and clean techniques during their sparring match
Photo taken by Zymba Vong 

Are there still federations who uses the same rules as in the 60's?

My own Organization, WJKA, is still operating according those rules. We will not change, not ever.  I know JKA is still operating according to the old rules, but I heard they tempted to change too.


What benefits are there to competitions (in general). Why would you love sport karate for younger people (with traditional settings)

I do not know if competitions give benefits unless to show people what karate is all about. I mean the performance, the “living”, the body control etc. Deep in my heart I really do not like competition nowadays. In the 60’s, when someone launched a punch, you knew that if he hits you’re gone. You saw in the body language that the technique was a killer. Nowadays people assume this, without seeing the body language because it is not there.

Sparring match between two young ladies, using traditional JKA rules.
Photo taken by Zymba Vong

Sports karate for younger people is okay, but any sport is okay for youngsters. It does not necessarily have to be karate. Sports, any sport, is good for the development of the young body. Tradition could help to develop the respect and discipline, which is nowadays, far gone.


Thank you Sensei Knobel for sharing your valuable insights.

To learn more about Sensei Jan Knobel and traditional Karate, please visit



Interview done by Hao Wong
Copyright ©2010 MartialLife. All rights reserved


Last Updated on Friday, 18 February 2011 07:02  

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