Recently, I wrote an article in defense of the use of wrist grabs in karate training, which are often derided as being unrealistic. In that article, I mentioned that the most common complaint people tend to have about many karate and kobudo applications and fighting drills is the use of formal karate-style attacks and incorrect maai (distancing). Unlike wrist grabs, which can be excellent teaching tools, as well as being practical, this issue of distancing really has no redeeming qualities. Typically, it shows up before the drill even begins, because the semete (attacker) stands too far away from the ukete (defender). Once the actual drill begins, the distancing problem is often worsened by the semete stepping back before they step in to execute their attack. Additionally, once the semete does step in to attack, the ukete often steps back as they receive the attack. These three things combine to create an illusion of effectiveness, and can cause karateka to believe they are training effective techniques when they are actually not.
When karate landed on mainland Japan, it met the modern Japanese budo culture. This was the culture in which jujutsu had become judo, kyujutsu had become kyudo, and kenjutsu had become kendo. Martial arts were being molded into martial sports, and karate was picked up by this wave of modernization. Although it did not happen immediately, it seems that karatedo evolved to resemble kendo, picking up its “one strike, one kill” mentality and its preferred range. In kendo, both people have a 4ft long shinai (bamboo sword), which forces them about 8ft apart from one another. Sport karate has made this distance work in competition, but it is simply not realistic for unarmed self defense purposes. The initial distance between training partners, when they are training to develop skills for self protection, should be the same distance you would stand apart from each other during a regular conversation. Real-life altercations almost always occur from this range, or even closer. For demonstration purposes, it makes sense to show techniques at a longer range, because it is easier to see what is going on. It also makes sense for beginners to start training with a greater distance between them and their partner, to reduce accidental injuries. As training progresses, though, this gap should be reduced to a realistic distance.
Even when traditional karateka do stand at a more reasonable range, to begin with, they often have the attacker stepping back into a kamae (posture) before attacking. I suspect that this also comes from the Japanese sword culture, although if it did, it would have come from kenjutsu, rather than kendo. If you watch a kenjutsu demonstration–or even demonstrations of European sword fighting–you will see that the participants typically take up some type of fighting posture before they engage. It is possible that this was also added to karate for symbolic reasons, in order to represent the “defensive nature of karate.” It could also be an exaggeration of something that does sometimes occur in real life. Your opponent is not likely to step back before attacking in real life, but if they do, it will generally be a very small step–just enough to give them space for their attack. Perhaps that small step was made to be larger and more formal. Regardless of its origin, this step causes two main problems in training; it conditions the ukete to expect an unrealistic preparatory process from their attacker, and it gives the ukete too much time to react by increasing the distance the semete must cover in order to attack, causing them to believe they have enough time to respond, when they would not otherwise.
Perhaps the biggest issue I see with “traditional” karate and kobudo fighting drills is having the ukete step back as their opponent steps in with their attack. This runs completely counter to the old Ti concept of “kobo ittai,” which means “attack and defense at the same time.” Consider fighting as a process of taking turns; your opponent uses their turn to attack you until you interrupt them, and take your turn to respond. This is, of course, incredibly simplified and doesn’t truly reflect the chaos of fighting, but it works for the purposes of this explanation. If your opponent’s turn is stepping forward and throwing a punch, then stepping back and blocking is your turn. This means that you have done nothing to interrupt your opponent’s turn, and so they will simply continue their attack. For example, in the animated GIF, above, there is nothing stopping semete from punching ukete in the face as he tries to throw his gyaku-tsuki (reverse punch) to the body after blocking. In all likelihood, semete would already be throwing a second punch before ukete threw his first. The only way a technique like this one works is if your opponent throws one attack and then stands still for you to respond.
The most efficient method for dealing with an attack is to take your opponent’s turn away from them. If you attack them while they are trying to attack you, then you put them at a disadvantage and, hopefully, increase your chances for success in defending yourself. You can see this demonstrated in the animated GIF, above, by Ulf Karlsson and Congi Thu. They start at a great enough distance for the viewer to see the technique, but neither of them steps back. As semete steps in with his attack, ukete steps in with his counter. Even if semete were to throw another punch, he would have to step and turn to face ukete (who has moved to the outside), which takes up another one of his turns and gives ukete more time to attack. This particular technique uses a strike, but the same thing can be done with throws, and joint locks can also be added because you have taken the initiative away from your opponent. As long as you maintain your offense, you should be able to shut down your opponent’s offense. This is also the way you see pre-emptive trapping applied, classically–ukete enters against an attack and stops the opponent from firing off a second attack.
The most common defense that people have for the “step-back-first” training method is that it is safer for beginners, while still teaching distance and timing against a committed attack. I have also seen it said that training in this manner gives both partners a chance to work on proper basics. Admittedly, this method of training is, indeed, safer than training at a more realistic range, against more realistic attacks, using more realistic responses. The problem is that it makes the dojo safer, and the streets more dangerous, because you are training people to react inefficiently to an attack. In addition, while having semete attack with good karate technique gives them more opportunities to practice their form, it doesn’t give ukete an opportunity to learn how to intercept real attacks, which are almost never going to be like a good karate technique. Besides that, the extra one or two punches that semete will practice during a drill don’t add up to much in comparison to the rest of their training, and throwing one or two realistic punches, instead, should not be enough to ruin their form. We must balance realism with safety in the dojo, and we must take care to not over-correct in either direction. Too much realism leads to a greater likelihood of injury in the dojo, and too much safety leads to a greater likelihood of injury outside of the dojo.