1. How does Shotokan karate differ from other martial arts?
All martial arts have their specialties and unique character. Shotokan is traditional Japanese karate that specializes in punching, striking, kicking and blocking techniques. However, there is much overlap in technique among martial arts styles. For example, we also do sweeping, throwing and joint-locking techniques. In Shotokan, you won't see much of the flashy spinning and jumping about that is popular in martial arts movies - just techniques that are powerful and effective.
2. What's different about traditional martial arts?
Traditional martial arts emphasize a holistic view to training both the body and the mind. Philosophy and ideals are just as important to traditional martial arts as physical movement. Traditional martial arts are based on time-honored techniques. Classes are structured and emphasis is placed on etiquette more so than in the typical street-corner martial arts academy.
3. What's the advantage of a JKA karate school?
The Japan Karate Association is one of the largest and most prestigious karate organizations in the world. Exacting standards of technique and rank are the same in our club as they are in Japan. JKA schools will not compromise their ranking standards just to keep students happy. Instructors are nationally and internationally certified and regularly participate in instructor training courses and seminars to improve their teaching skills throughout their lives. Regular training camps provide JKA students exposure to a great number of world-class karate instructors. Your JKA rank is recognized throughout the world. Independent schools and smaller organizations do not have this depth of opportunity.
4. What is a typical karate class like?
JKA Virginia adheres to a standard traditional karate class. A typical class combines aerobic, endurance, flexibility and strengthening exercises, all the while honing the practical skills of the art. The training is very rigorous and typically last 1.5 hrs. Class consists of:
Each class begins and ends with approximately 1 minute of meditation. Meditation before class helps clear your mind so that you can focus on improving yourself during class. Meditation after class helps you relax and return to daily life.
Warm-ups are essential to each class. Warm-ups include stretches that prepare your body for the rigors of class and help prevent injury.
Basics are the foundation on which you build your skill. During basics you practice punches, kicks and blocks. You may do one technique many times, first slow, then fast. By repeating individual techniques, you train your body to learn the movements. Eventually, they become instinctive.
Students practice sparring through basic sparring, sparring drills, and free sparring. During basic sparring, the attacker announces both target and technique in advance. This allows the attacker and the defender to practice timing, distance, control, stance, and power. Sparring drills allow you to practice a variety of techniques and combinations with a partner. As students become more advanced, you practice free sparring, which is similar to tournament sparring.
Techniques performed in pre-determined combinations against imaginary opponents are called Kata (KAH-ta). Each kata is a set routine intended to mimic a fight against multiple opponents. They each have a particular number of moves, a set order, and do not change. By learning the different moves in sequence, your body learns how to use the moves together. In JKA Shotokan Karate, there are 25 kata that increase in difficulty. Katas are a key element of traditional karate. Although their exact dates of origin are unknown, Shotokan katas are said to go back hundreds of years
Warm-downs and Calisthenics
A few push-ups and sit-ups at the end of class help strengthen key muscles. Warm-down stretches help loosen muscles that have become tight during class.
5. What are the belts (ranks) in karate and how long does it take to reach them?
Beginning students first go through the "kyu" ranks. Students typically rise in rank by one kyu every 3 to 6 months. Kyu ranks and the color belts that go with them are:
White belt - 10th kyu, 9th kyu
Yellow belt - 8th kyu, 7th kyu
Green belt - 6th kyu
Purple belt - 5th kyu, 4th kyu
Brown belt - 3rd kyu, 2nd kyu, 1st kyu
Six months after students attain 1st kyu, they may then start testing for "dan", pronounced “don”, (black belt) ranks. Students who train regularly typically require 3 to 5 years to reach the first level (Shodan) of black belt. Each succeeding black belt level requires increasingly more time to attain. For example, it generally takes at least 2 years to go from Shodan (1st degree) to Nidan (2nd degree), at least 3 years between Nidan and Sandan (3rd degree), and at least 5 years between Sandan and Yondan (4th degree).
6. Why do we bow so much?
Bowing and kneeling at the start and end of class has nothing to do with religion or any type of worship. It is a time to calm your mind, prepare yourself for training, and pay respect to the tradition and history of karate. Bowing to one another in the dojo is a gesture of kindness and respect for another person. Common among Eastern cultures, we have no real equivalent here in the West. Bowing is both a greeting and an acknowledgement of another person's worth. Karate students embrace a philosophy that all people are worthy of respect. Learning to respect others is paramount to correct understanding of martial arts. Great physical and mental power must be offset by making a habit of putting other people before oneself, otherwise karate students might easily become bullies. So as we gain strength with potential to harm others, we also endeavor to become kinder people. Bowing and other forms of martial arts etiquette are training tools to help the karate student make kindness a habit.
7. Where can I learn more about JKA karate?
There are many resources. Obviously, you can come to the dojo, train, and talk with the students. Also, you can go to the official JKA homepage at: There are also a multitude of JKA videos on using search terms “JKA”, “JKA Karate”, “JKA Kumite”, and “JKA Kata.”
8. Do you have to be a YMCA member to train?
No, non-members are welcome. However, being a YMCA member means you have access to all of the other equipment at the YMCA. Additionally, becoming a YMCA member is more cost effective over the course of a year.
9. When do you accept new students?
You can start anytime you wish.
10. What do I have to do to join?
Come to any of our classes and try it out! Your first class is free. If you decide you like it, you can then see an instructor for instructions on how to enroll in the class.
11. How much does it cost?
Non-YMCA members need to pay $60 per year membership fee plus $135 for 9 weeks of practice.
12. What should I wear? - Do I need to buy a uniform?
Beginners are not required to wear uniforms (called "karate-gi") during the first 3 months of practice. Any kind of light clothing that you can stretch and move easily in is acceptable. For a limited time, YMCA Arlington is offering uniforms to new students free of charge.
13. Do I need previous martial arts experience?
No, most of our new members have no previous experience. If you do have experience in karate or some other martial art, of course you're also welcome to join.
14. How often should I train?
We offer classes three days a week. In general, the more you train, the faster you'll learn. Three times a week is best. Two times a week is OK, but learning is slower. Progress is very slow and bad habits become rampant at practice levels below two times per week. Unlike some dojos, we do not penalize anyone for missing classes. Training is your personal endeavor and you will get out of it what you put into it. All students should establish a regular and consistent training schedule in order to learn techniques efficiently and not develop bad habits.
It is important that beginners not expect instant results! Karate takes patience and perseverance - it takes years to become proficient no matter how often you train. You must also balance training with your life. Don't neglect other things due to excessive training.
15. Are children allowed to train/How old should a child be before starting karate?
Yes, children are allowed to train. Currently, we do not offer a “children only” class, so all children will train at the same time as the adults. Obviously, young children will be somewhat segregated from the adults to avoid injuries.
Determining when a child should begin training depends on the child's maturity and attention span, which can vary widely among individuals. The instructor will make a determination as to whether any child is ready to train, however a good guideline is that children 8 and older are ready to train with a parent and children 10 and older are to train on their own.
16. Can older adults practice karate?
Karate can be practiced at any age as long as a person is relatively healthy. A physical exam and doctor's OK is a good idea for anyone older than age 50 or so. Older people may not be as strong, fast or flexible as someone in their 20's, but they can still practice karate at their own pace and derive great physical and emotional benefit from it. We have students whose ages range from 19 to their late 60’s.
17. What do I call the teacher?
Instructors are addressed as "Sensei". Sensei is a Japanese title of respect (sort of like "Sir" or "Mister"). It means "teacher" and is literally translated as "before birth" which infers that the instructor is someone older than you. In this case we are speaking of "karate age". In other words, an instructor is someone who has more karate experience than you. Sensei and "Master" are titles which people use to refer to or address someone else. It is considered very improper to refer to oneself as Sensei or Master.
"Sempai" ("senior") is another term of respect that is often used when addressing someone who is not an instructor, but is senior to you in karate experience.
18. What are the dojo rules?
There is a lot of etiquette (for example, bowing) associated with traditional karate, but few rules. The line between the two is often thin. Karate etiquette is based on respect and kindness toward other people, while dojo rules are more for safety and not disrupting the class. Some of the steadfast rules are:
No shoes may be worn on the practice floor (we practice in bare feet).
Fingernails and toenails must be trimmed to a reasonable length (otherwise they become dangerous to you and to your partners).
No jewelry (including rings, watches and necklaces) may be worn during practice. This is also primarily for safety reasons. Exceptions may be made for simple items that could not hurt a person or be accidentally pulled off.
No talking during class. Raise your hand if you have a question/comment. Some quiet instruction/advice between students is OK if brief.
Students may not enter or leave class without an instructor's permission. If you are late, you must wait at the back of the room in a kneeling position called “seiza” until you are acknowledged to enter class. If you wish to leave for any reason, you must raise your hand first. If you simply leave class without being acknowledged, Sensei may not be aware if someone has been injured or is experiencing some kind of medical emergency.
19. How coordinated and physically fit do I have to be to practice karate?
Most world karate champions, like any top athlete, were probably well-coordinated natural athletes before they began their karate training. Of course, becoming a “world champ” is not the goal of karate. Since the purpose is to improve oneself beyond what you thought was possible, being very physically fit and coordinated is not a prerequisite for training. Instead, karate training should be viewed as a remedy for those who wish to improve their fitness level and coordination.
Of course, karate will get you in shape; whether you join for this reason or to learn a skill! It is rigorous and very challenging physically and mentally. Many students lose weight, improve balance and coordination and feel better after beginning a training regimen.
20. Will I get hurt practicing karate?
Karate training is very rigorous. Bumps, bruises and sore muscles are not uncommon. Serious injuries are extremely uncommon; however, because karate emphasizes physical and mental control as well as respect for your training partner. No contact is allowed during our sparring exercises or during competitions. The result is that karate practice is considerably safer than many other popular sports such as basketball and soccer.
21. How long must I train before I can defend myself?
The ability to defend oneself from attack is dependent on many factors. Certainly, the longer you train, the more able you will become. The probability of success is relative to the strength and ability of the defender vs. that of the attacker(s). It is important to realize, however, that there are no guarantees! It is possible for a beginner to get lucky or an advanced karate person to be caught during an inattentive moment. This uncertainty is one of the practical reasons why strategies that reduce the chance of conflict are more important to self-defense than physical prowess.
Beyond all that, a beginner should think on the order of years (as opposed to weeks or months) before he/she begins to be proficient at karate. Herein lies the danger of the many so called "self defense courses" that typically run from 6 to 8 weeks. The most important thing a short course can teach you about self-defense is how vulnerable you really are if attacked and that you should be extremely cautious about dangerous environments.
22. How effective is karate REALLY?
Again this depends on the ability of the individual karate student. The most adept technicians in the world, who train consistently and have devoted their lives to mastering the art, are certainly able to vanquish multiple, variously armed attackers under most circumstances. The key to this is highly developed timing, reflexes, and accuracy as well as developing sufficient power to disable an attacker with a single blow. The average karate student with only a few years of experience may not be able to do the all the things you see on TV, but his karate knowledge could nonetheless save his life.
23. When do we get to free spar?
Basic sparring is emphasized during the first year or so of practice. Free sparring becomes more important for advanced students. The main reason for this is that good basic technique is a prerequisite to effective free sparring and too much free sparring tends to create bad habits in basic technique. Beginners occasionally free spar, but typically it is with senior students as partners. This is primarily for safety reasons - the senior students won't hurt you because they have learned to control their techniques, and no matter how unpredictable your technique is, you probably won't be able to hurt them.
24. Will I be able to compete in tournaments?
If you want to. We participate in a number of regular competitions as a supplemental form of training and a means to test skills. Competition is stressed as an important, but optional, training opportunity. Tournament prowess is not a goal in traditional karate. More important is development of body, mind and a non-violent philosophy.
Special thanks to JKA UConn and JKA Boston for help with this page.