Most traditional martial artists who practice styles from Japan or Okinawa will be familiar with the word “kamae,” which literally translates to “posture” or “pose,” in the context of martial arts. It is typically used to refer to either specific arrangements of the arms, or of the entire body, as a whole–not to be confused with “tachi,” or “stance,” which generally refers only to the position of the legs. These types of postures can, of course, be seen in various other martial arts, as well, although by different names. The most common example in karate is probably “gedan-gamae,” which means “low-level posture,” where a person steps back to a zenkutsu-dachi (front stance) and executes a gedan-barai (low sweep/block). This is frequently seen at the beginning of formal partner drills in modern karate practices, and is used merely as a starting position for the attacker in the drill. People often refer to kamae as being preparatory postures, or guard positions, meant to be held until a technique is executed, and while they can be used in this way, it is not the whole story.
A kamae that is nothing but a static posture, waiting for action, has very limited use. In regard to this type of kamae, Chibana Chosin was quoted as saying; “There is no kamae in a karate kata, except for the beginning and end of the kata. Everything else is transition and application.” As a dai senpai (most senior student) in Itosu Anko’s dojo, Chibana had a solid understanding of the karate that was taught to him, and had to use that understanding in kakedameshi challenge matches. Clearly, he knew what he was talking about when it came to the practical application of karate. Still, it begs the question; why are kamae taught in karate, if there are no kamae in kata? Personally, I believe that this is a problem with terminology. The kamae of karate are not meant to be static, and they are not meant to simply be positions you hold when you aren’t doing anything. Kamae are actually snapshots of techniques in action, and represent either the beginning, middle, or ending of a technique.
This idea can be a bit confusing, because some kamae do, indeed, work just fine as “guard” positions, as Dan Djurdjevic Sensei illustrates well in this article about “Clayton’s Gap.” For example, you can see from the photo, above, that there is little difference between the meotode-gamae of karate and the standard guard of Western bareknuckle boxing. While that application works well for the posture, and it should be considered in your training, I believe it would be a mistake to limit ourselves to that single definition of what kamae are. This limitation becomes especially problematic when you begin looking into the other types of kamae found in karate, many of which do not work nearly as well as a boxing-style guard.
Some of the kamae found in karate, whether they are in rare styles like Kojo-Ryu (seen, above) or more mainstream styles like Matsubayashi-Ryu, are simply ill-advised if you see kamae as nothing more than static guard positions. Indeed, the founder of Matsubayashi-Ryu, Nagamine Shoshin, stated in “The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do” that kamae are “intermediate movements,” which “make the movements of the kata flow.” To me, this suggests that kamae are not intended to be merely static guard postures, but components of active techniques. When you look at kamae from this perspective, it becomes easier to see the utility of each, because the posture could represent the beginning, middle, or ending position of a block, strike, lock, takedown, etc. Additionally, since most movements in kata can be connected to the movements immediately before and after them–or even completely separate movements, if you are open to the idea–then a kamae can actually simultaneously be the beginning, middle, and end of techniques.
Kamae also exist in arts that specialize in weapons, and they work very much the same way as the kamae of empty hand arts. They are routinely referred to as “guards” or “postures,” and sometimes they are, indeed, utilized as static guard positions. Chudan no kamae, some variation of which is found in every sword art I’ve seen, is probably the most commonly seen static guard position in weapon arts. That said, in my discussions with practitioners of Fiore longsword, which has a collection of 12 guards, it was made fairly clear that the “guards” of European martial arts primarily represented the beginning and ending postures of various techniques, and occasionally the mid-point of techniques. They could be used as static guards, of course, but combat is very rarely static, whether you are unarmed or wielding a longsword, and they are simply more useful for training transitions. For example, posta di ferro mezana (middle iron door posture), is considered to be a “guard,” but it is also the ending position of a downward cut, and the beginning position for an upward cut with the false edge of the sword. In an actual fight, this position can also be entirely transitory.
Kamae are often said to be a mental or emotional “posture” of readiness, rather than a physical position. This is a perspective that has been taken by masters of many different arts. Even the famed Okinawan karate fighter, Motobu Choki, has been quoted as saying that “kamae is in the heart, not a physical manifestation.” This idea has a lot of value when looking at karate from a self defense perspective. Studies have shown that violent criminals can pick out vulnerable people to target based solely on their posture, body language, and stride. If we are looking at kamae as being mental or emotional “postures” of readiness, then they can hold a great deal of value in avoiding conflict and victimization. Even in this case, however, kamae cannot be considered to be a static, purely defensive mechanism–it must be constantly adapting to whatever situation you are in.
The value of training kamae is not really in developing strong guard positions, but in developing an awareness of how one position leads to another. You might utilize a kamae to protect yourself from a punch, and from there execute a technique to counter, which will end with you being in a different kamae. From this kamae, you can then utilize further techniques depending on how your opponent responds. The ability to see the postures in the midst of techniques can be difficult to develop, as can the awareness to transition between them, but that is, in my opinion, the real value of kamae.