The 5 Karate Code of Ethics

In the old days, when a samurai wanted to test his sword, he might just grab an Okinawan peasant and slash away.

It was legal, and it was easy because the peasant wasn’t allowed to have any weapons.

So, the essence of karate for peasants in those days was pretty straightforward: Kill your opponent before he kills you.

While we definitely still need effective self-defense today, we have progressed, happily, to a point at which we don’t have bands of samurai roaming the streets and hacking away at us.

The techniques of almost any style of karate are more than adequate for our self-defense needs.

They will take care of the nasty business of assault, robbery, rape, etc. So we can feel very confident in that department.

Today, though, stress and anxiety are bigger enemies for most of us than muggers are.

And it is in this department (the stress department) that karate really shines.

The basic ways that karate helps control stress are through vigorous, regular exercise and greatly improved concentration.

Beyond these basics, though, karate has a lot to offer that might not be readily apparent at first glance.

Karate has a deeply embedded code that enables people to develop not only concentration but control of their emotions as well.

And while different schools of karate-do have different written codes, almost all of them can be summed up in five basic principles.

Here are 5 basic principles of karate.

Karate Ethics


So, you say, I have a good character already. Do I need more? No, you don’t need more or a different character.

What you need and can get from karate is polished character.

Even if you are the nicest, most moral person in the world, you can still be better, but you have to work at it, and karate-do is a great tool for this.

This idea in karate is usually expressed as “Seek perfection of character.”

That means that the premise of karate-do is as an art of virtuous people—people of high character—who continually strive to grow emotionally and mentally.

In all physical activities—including karate—physical growth can increase only to the point that age starts causing it to decrease.

When this happens, most people just accept the fact that they can’t get any better.

In karate, though, the emphasis is on developing the mind and the body together, so even when the body starts declining, we can still improve ourselves by concentrating on improving our character.

Karate’s idea is that by using the techniques of karate, we can continually challenge ourselves physically and mentally until the day we die, no matter what our age or physical condition.

Improved character arises out of two types of discipline—self-discipline and imposed discipline— and karate provides both.


In the original Japanese, sincerity is sometimes referred to as “Be faithful” or “Defend the paths of truth.”

It is a principle of karate that encourages us to be sincere and honest, both in the dojo and out.

In the dojo, sincerity, and honesty in dealing with classmates is essential to the smooth functioning of the class.

Strong sanctions are imposed on people in the dojo who show a lack of sincerity in trying to learn and help their classmates learn because a lack of sincerity often leads to injury.

Let’s say, for example, that your opponent announces that she is going to step in and execute a punch to your face, but then she does it so lackadaisically that you don’t feel any force or threat from it.

She was insincere and dishonest with you, and she wasted both her time in the dojo and yours.

She also created a situation in which she could be injured because, if you believe her to be sincere in her intent to attack your face, you will block her strongly and seriously.

If her arm was loose and insincere, she could be badly hurt by your blocking action.

So, in karate, sincerity is honesty, and a lack of sincerity or dishonesty with ourselves and others can lead to injury.


The principle of fostering the spirit of effort is a warning that the practice of karate-do is not easy and that, to succeed, you will have to sincerely try to do your best at all times.

“Karate is like hot water. If you do not give it heat constantly, it will again become cold water.”

Gichin Funakoshi

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that all the core principles of karate are tied together in a neat bundle.

Going back to your opponent who wasn’t sincere in her intention to fire a punch at your nose, it’s pretty easy to see that in addition to having the right intention, she would also have to try really hard to execute the technique properly.

Sincerity and effort are two sides of the same coin.

For example, how many times have you said, sincerely and honestly, “I’d really like to try that!” but have not followed up with the effort necessary to actually try it? That’s natural, but it’s unacceptable in karate.

What you honestly want to accomplish in the dojo can be accomplished only by exerting the effort necessary to accomplish it.

People who have trained in karate for a long time believe that they can accomplish much more in their daily lives by exerting a sincere effort to get things done.

They can also look at something and know that they honestly and sincerely would like to try it, but they make a conscious decision not to try it because they know that it will require effort that they are not willing to expend.

Practicing karate with a spirit of 100 percent effort also enables you to realize that anything you truly want to accomplish will require 100 percent of your effort to accomplish it.

And the effort required to accomplish things in daily life is usually a lot less rigorous than the effort exerted to master karate.


Etiquette is the form required for proper, formal behavior, and because the practice of karate involves strong, fast, physical fighting techniques, the rules of etiquette are strictly observed to be sure that nobody gets hurt.

It’s pretty easy to imagine how many injuries might occur in a karate class if people were allowed to just wander around the room, lobbing punches and kicks at each other at random.

Ouch! To avoid this, karate observes some strict rules of etiquette, the most obvious of which is bowing a lot.

You will be required to bow when you enter the dojo and again when stepping onto the training floor.

You will bow to your teacher and again to your seniors.

You will bow to your partner before and after every encounter, and you’ll repeat the whole process as you leave the dojo.

Aside from the obvious fact that karate is Japanese art and that the Japanese seem to bow a lot, why, you probably wonder, is so much formal bowing required?

Bowing is required because it forces you to take the first step in making your mind and body work together as one unit.

If you think that your mind and body already function nicely as one unit, you’re dead wrong in terms of self-defense.

Some people are very strong mentally but are physically unprepared for a sudden attack.

Others might be very strong physically but may have no idea how to cope with sudden violence.

Most of us probably fall somewhere in between those extremes, but most of us probably are not prepared for a sudden, violent confrontation.

When a surprise attack is launched against you, you must be ready, both physically and psychologically, if you want to walk away in one piece.

When you ask yourself “What would I do if somebody suddenly attacked me?” one of your answers might be “I’d have to think about it.” Too bad— you lose.

The last thing you want to do when you are attacked is to think about it.

Thinking takes too much time.

While you are thinking, your attacker is wailing away at you, accomplishing his dirty deed.

No, thinking won’t work. The only thing that will work is for your mind and body to respond instantly as one unit.

Your body can respond with appropriate karate techniques while your mind remains calm and your emotions stable.

This is the only way to win, and the formal rules of etiquette in the dojo are the foundation for training the mind and body to work together.

In the dojo, where you have time to think, you are forced to do just that.

You are given a formal code of conduct that is challenging both mentally and physically.

Some schools require that people address each other in the formal Japanese manner of attaching “san” to names.

So, good old Joe Smith would be addressed as “Smithsan” or “Joe-san.”

In another dojo, he might have to be addressed as “Mr. Smith.”

No matter what the requirement is, though, it is a method that forces you to think about your behavior and then applies both physical and mental effort to effect a formal behavior.

There are both written and unwritten rules in the dojo, and these rules help you to be more aware of your behavior both in the dojo and out.

By learning and practicing careful rules of etiquette in the dojo, you become more aware of your behavior outside the dojo, and this helps you become more aware of potentially dangerous situations before they develop into trouble.

Also, as we said earlier, karate is an art of virtuous people, and virtuous people are expected to set the tone for the rest of society in terms of etiquette and proper behavior.

Practicing karate is a big step in the right direction of kind and courteous behavior toward others.


Anybody who speaks a foreign language well knows that literal translation and meaningful translation are often two very different things.

To exercise self-control seems pretty obvious at face value: Control yourself.

But like the other parts of karate’s code of ethics, that doesn’t do the idea justice.

Of course, self-control is a great virtue. If you have control over your emotions, you don’t tend to get into arguments all the time, and you don’t fly off the handle when somebody is rude or casts aspersions on your family heritage.

But karate’s idea of self-control goes way beyond that.

Some translate the original Japanese principle to mean “Refrain from violent behavior,” while others say that it means “To guard against impetuous courage.”

Refraining from violent behavior is pretty straightforward, and guarding against impetuous courage pretty much means, “Don’t do something on the spur of the moment that you might regret later.”

My favorite translation, however, is farther away from the original as a literal translation but captures the idea beautifully.

It comes from the late karate master Osamu Ozawa:

“We shall be wary of foolishness. All violence is foolish, and anybody who attacks another person is a fool. Fools are easier to identify than normal people, so watch out for foolish behavior in others, and avoid it.”

Osamu Ozawa

Much more important, though, he said that the principle means that we must watch out for foolish behavior in ourselves, and we must do everything in our power to control our behavior in a way that will not invite trouble.

In the dojo, self-control is learned by working with other people in a controlled, challenging environment.

In karate, you will rather quickly learn that if you lose control of yourself in practice, you will be putting yourself in line for severe discipline.

You also learn that losing self-control outside the dojo can put you in harm’s way.

Controlling yourself is the first step toward controlling a confrontation.

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