Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
September 16, 2016


How we train is how we will perform.  As one trains in Isshin-ryu, one should keep this martial arts maxim in one’s mind.  This maxim is true at all times one is on the training floor but most definitely during the practice of kihon, kata, and kumite.  Generally, we think of this maxim in terms of developing so-called “muscle memory;” that we are attempting to create specific reflexes so as to remove thought from our practice of martial arts and therefore make our engagement with an opponent, offensively and defensively, faster.  But, this maxim also includes one’s intended practice setting. The techniques we employ, the targets we choose, the outcomes we desire will be influenced by where we imagine we will usually demonstrate our training.

For most, training will only be demonstrated in the dojo and thus the choice of techniques, targets, and desired outcomes is highly abstract.  These students may never fully feel that they should even be making such choices. In their training, these students will follow what they are told to do but with little understanding as to the potential reasons associated with those actions. They will follow rules without even being aware that they are following rules and therefore being unknowingly restricted by those rules.

For some, training will be demonstrated in competition and then the choice of techniques, targets, and desired outcomes will be made with respect to tournament rules of engagement and evaluation. Following and being restricted by rules is a conscious choice by these students made for secondary gain: to win in a competition. These students will develop kata with the idea of engaging an audience and thrilling a judge.  These students will engage in kumite to the exact letter of the rules of engagement so as to avoid disqualification and seek to score points in a match so as to win. Kihon, the basics, for these students, will be viewed as drills that develop muscle memory but otherwise are treated as “ideal” or even “stylized” versions of the techniques they will actually employ when in competition. Indeed, how such students spar will often look significantly different from how they perform kihon and kata.

For a few, training is predicted to be demonstrated in “practical” settings as a part of their work or in instances of self-defense. Training takes on a practical aspect for these students where kumite reflects the practice of kihon and kata. In this case, the martial artist is training at all times as if they could be demonstrating their training in a situation for which martial arts were originally developed, where life will be at risk. In order to do so, this martial artist cannot be restricted to tournament-style kumite or sparring. Given that kihon and kata reflect the application of force in ways that could result in grievous injury and even death, there will still be a set of rules of engagement so as to safeguard against death, but these students’ conscious choice to be restricted is solely for the safety of their partner. Kumite performed under these conditions is known as randori (rahn-doh-ree).

Randori is a term used in Japanese martial arts to describe a form of free-style practice. The term denotes kumite where participants are expected to apply techniques to a random succession of attacks in a form of “mock-combat.” The two karateka engaging in randori will move at “street” speed, moving very fast, parrying and attempting acts of extreme violence with potentially all possible tools: hands and feet but also elbows, knees, forearms, shins, and even martial weapons. And, unlike tournament-style or sport karate, all techniques can be considered potentially available: not only strikes and kicks but also grappling techniques such as submission holds, strangleholds, and throws. The exact classes of tools and techniques that will be considered “fair play” should be verbally agreed upon between the two karateka before starting the randori round.  Also unlike tournament-style or sport karate sparring where protective equipment is required, karateka engaging in randori can elect to use only some or no protective equipment so as to make as many techniques as possible available for use as well as to increase the experience of a more genuine threat to their wellbeing as a part of the round.

Total control of one’s body is necessary in randori due to the potentially lethal nature of martial arts. Despite moving at street speed with potentially brutal techniques, only “light” contact should occur during a round of randori. The only lasting evidence of a randori round should at most be bruising of the skin.  Given that such control usually takes years of training to attain, only students holding a Brown Belt or higher are usually considered as being potentially capable of the safest possible use of randori. Furthermore, students must ask permission of their instructors before engaging in randori.  And, randori should only occur between two students who have obtained such approval and then consent with one another that they will be engaging in a round of randori, rather than “standard” sparring, and agree to the classes of tools and techniques that can be employed in the randori round. Instructors can use their observations of a student in their demonstration of self-defense techniques to evaluate the level of control a student is capable of demonstrating. But, more controlled types of kumite, such as ippon kumite, will not only provide a more reliable method of evaluation but also an effective method for developing the level of control needed for the safest possible use of randori.

The only remaining distinction between a standard round of kumite and a randori round is the rhythm of engagement.  As a reflection of tournament-style sparring, action can be interrupted as soon as a successful technique has been applied. The two karateka can then “reset” before once again engaging with one another.  In a round of randori, the action is uninterrupted when a successful technique is applied. Action in a randori round continues until the full time of the round is completed.

Randori is dangerous and should only be attempted with permission from one’s instructors and then only with another consenting randori practitioner. But, in order to train to use martial arts as they were intended, randori is indispensable.