Hard, Middle and Soft Styles of Karate.
A common method for categorizing fighting arts is by system and style. When someone speaks of a system more than likely they are using a broad based term to describe a fighting art and the particular geographical region from which it originated. For instance when one uses the term "Karate" this describes a form of fighting that had its beginnings on Okinawa. Likewise if one were to use the term Judo, this would apply to a system of grappling developed in Japan. When the term "style" is used it describes a particular method of teaching that falls under the broad heading of a system. Therefore if I use the term "Isshinryu Karate Do", Karate is a system of fighting while Isshinryu is a style or subsystem of karate.
However, the word "style" can also be used to categorize a fighter or fighting art as either a "hard" or "soft" methodology. Hard styles and stylists are often noted for their physical prowess and body hardening methods, which involves toughing the knuckles, shins and forearms. These are areas commonly used for striking and blocking in hard style training. Soft styles and stylists on the other hand are associated with yielding and molding actions that use an opponent’s own force as a weapon against them. Soft styles of fighting like Tai Chi and Aikido are also known for their reliance upon internal energy to generate power where as hard styles are known to rely upon external energy or muscular strength for their source of power. Although the Hard-Soft method of categorization is a useful tool, it often proves to be an incomplete analysis which fails to recognize that both hard and soft concepts can be found thoughout karate. For instance at the beginners stage most blocks are taught as force meeting force actions. However, by the third year of training these same blocks have, in many instances, become deflections, locks or throws.
Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming explains in "The Essence of Shaolin White Crane Martial Power and Qigong", that Chinese fighting arts are categorized by the manner in which they develop Jin or martial power. (p.17) However instead of two categories, Dr. Yang uses three in relation to the Chinese fighting arts. They are: Hard, Soft -Hard and Soft Styles. Hard styles use muscular power in their execution of techniques and utilize bold rigid movements as is often seen in many karate-ka’s execution of kata. Soft-Hard styles tend to be more pliable than hard styles and although they do use muscular power they remain fairly relaxed until the moment of impact with their target. Dr. Yang likens the Soft-Hard styles strike to that of Rattan, one, which inflicts both internal and external injuries. (pp.17) The third style of fighting is soft style. Soft style places much emphasis upon relaxation and only uses muscle tension for a brief instance to retract the striking limb. By doing so a "Whipping action" as Dr. Yang describes it is generated one that can cause much damage to an opponents internal organs (pp.17). Of the three styles of fighting soft form is considered by many practitioners to be the most advanced.
The categories of Hard, Hard -Soft and Soft, Dr. Yang described can be applied to other fighting arts, such as karate. In examining the Okinawan fighting arts and the roles played by hard and soft concepts in them the late Donn F. Draeger stated; "No system of ch’uan-fa, te, karate-jutsu, or karate-do is an absolutely "soft" or "hard" system, but may be categorized as being one of the other depending on the priority given to one or the other aspect in the execution of techniques." (Donn F. Draeger Modern Bujutsu & Budo pp.128) Draeger’s statement makes it quite clear that not only are there- both hard and soft elements in the Okinawan fighting arts but that hard-soft or middle concepts are also present.
Although the three styles of fighting: Hard, Hard-Soft and Soft are frequently viewed as separate entities they are in fact interlinking components that make up a complete process of evolution. More often than not, the beginning practitioner will find that during their initial phases of training, say the first three to five years, reliance upon physical dexterity while executing techniques is far easier than trying to use concepts found within the middle and soft forms of fighting. As Dr. Yang said: "It is easier to be hard, and harder to be soft for a beginner." (P.99 Shaolin White Crane Martial Power and Theory) His statement brings to light that developing Middle and Soft concepts of fighting proves to be very a demanding task.
The process of reaching the level of middle and soft styles of fighting takes many years of dedicated training and the reason is why younger karate-ka's techniques resemble the "old bull in the china shop" approach, while older, more experienced karate-ka tend to exhibit subtle skills which have devastating power and speed. Therefore when examining Hard, Hard-Soft and Soft styles of fighting the question often arises: do some styles of karate facilitate the progress from hard to soft better than others? While this argument can be made, especially when comparing two seeming diverse styles such as Shotokan and Goju-ryu, what we frequently ignore is that progression from a hard to soft style of fighting has more to do with the karate-ka than their chosen style of karate. Although the Shoto-kan practitioner may initally begin their training in a hard manner, over the course of three decades they will develop nuances and skills that will allow them to fight in the realm of softness.
During our study of karate it is important to note that how we train today will change over the course of time. It is this change, brought forth by both time and practice that is at the core of developing hard, middle and soft styles of fighting. It is not an over night process much less one that can be accomplished in a few years time. For the beginning student visualizing what their style of fighting will be like 25 years from now is an almost impossible task. Yet it is important that they are made aware of the changes that will take place during their training. Likewise, it is important that the advanced practitioner remembers where their training began, while acknowledging the transformation process they have undergone.
Michael Rosenbaum is the author of: Kata and The Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts.