"The Ultimate aim in the Art of Karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants" these are the words of Master Gichin Funakoshi, one of the men who originally introduced karate to the Japanese. Recited by students of his teachings around the world, they reveal the main purpose of not only karate, but of martial arts in general. A proper training in the martial arts has benefits beyond merely teaching one how to fight. It improves physical fitness, self-confidence, discipline, and focus, as well as teaching when to fight.
While most of the benefits of martial arts training are internal and cerebral rather than external and physical, the most readily apparent benefit is the improvement of the practitioner's physical fitness. As Master Funakoshi said, "It is important that karate can be practiced by the young and old alike. That is, since there is no need for a special training place, equipment, or an opponent, a flexibility in training is provided such that the physically and spiritually weak individual can develop his mind and body so gradually and naturally that he himself may not even realize his own progress." The ancient martial artists were said to possess almost superhuman speed and strength, capable of doing things that no ordinary person could. This power was attributed to the control of chi, an insubstantial substance that flows through all living things. Practitioners with similar abilities still exist, but the concept of chi has been largely abandoned for the more concrete theory of body mechanics. By body mechanics, it is meant that the muscles of the practitioner are working together in total harmony, allowing the human body to function with greater efficiency. The majority of today's exercise regimes have one common weakness: they are based on isolating muscles and working each area of the body individually rather than treating the body as the integrated whole it is. The poor physical condition many of us are in today comes from the imbalance of engaging in complicated, inefficient exercises that isolate certain body parts while neglecting others. The martial arts on the other hand, with their goal of increased efficiency of movement, develop all muscles simultaneously as part of the training.
The perfection of ones character that Master Funakoshi cited as the chief goal of karate is probably the least obvious aspect of the training to the casual observer, but in reality it is at the core. Many people seek martial arts training with [violence in mind, whether they are afraid and wish to learn to defend themselves, or are angry and wish to learn to beat people up. In either case, they are unlikely to commit to their training long enough to learn anything. In Master Funakoshi's words, "Just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karate-Do purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear conscience can he understand that which he receives." The truth of this statement is undeniable. Of the dozen or so people that usually join my dojo when beginner's classes start, it is unusual for more than one or two to progress beyond the elementary stages.
A common misconception among non-practitioners is that training in the martial arts is training in violence. The truth of the matter is that the idea of efficiency in movement also applies here. While martial artists do learn to be more effective when violent, they also learn to be violent only when necessary. As put by Master Funakoshi: "The correct understanding of Karate and its proper use is Karate-Do. One who truly trains in this do, and actually understands Karate-Do is never easily drawn into a fight."
What may be the most important benefit of martial arts training is the increased self-confidence one gains while training. How you see yourself directly affects how you carry yourself, and that influences how others see you. A person with a great deal of self confidence is more likely to speak up and make their opinion known, more likely to stand up for themselves, and less likely to let an opportunity pass them by. A high self confidence is also an effective form of self defense, as a person who carries themselves with pride is less likely to be chosen as a victim than one who is timidly creeping along, hoping no one notices them.
There are almost as many kinds of martial arts as there are cultures in the world. The most famous are those created by the Asian peoples, such as Kung Fu, Karate, and Tae Kwon Do, but the Asians do not have a monopoly on the martial arts. The Israeli's have Krav Maga, the French have Savate, and the Brazilians have Capoeira. Even here in Canada we have our own style of Karate, Tsuruoka, created by Masami Tsuruoka, who is called the father of Canadian karate, and one of six ninth-degree black belts in the world. Master Tsuruoka still takes a very active role in his style, spending much of his time traveling around the country visiting the all of the dojos that follow his teachings. Even with so many different martial arts in the world, each with its own unique philosophies, the benefits remain the same throughout. With an average training time of two hours, two or three times a week, and the ability to practice almost anywhere, the benefits to training in a martial art far outweigh the costs. "Karate-Do strives internally to train the mind to develop a clear conscience, enabling one to face the world honestly, while externally developing strength to the point where one may overcome ferocious wild animals. Mind and technique become one in true karate"