When I started reading and thinking about this question I expected to find a definitive answer: We practice karate barefoot because......... However, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer. Different sources give different reasons and generally these are offered as suggestions rather than real reasons.
The reasons offered seem to fall into three categories:
1.Tradition. This refers to the Japanese tradition of separating 'indoors' from 'outdoors', which involves taking your shoes off when entering someone’s home. This evolved as a practical courtesy to prevent you from treading dirt into someone’s home or damaging the tatami mats, that covered the floors, with shoes. However, the custom didn’t necessarily stretch to taking off your shoes in public buildings. Shoes were allowed to be worn in museums or libraries or other buildings that acted as meeting places.
This traditional argument is quite quaint but it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny very well. To start with isn’t a dojo a public place in the sense that it is not a residential place but a meeting place for people following a martial art? Also, originally karate was practised outside in courtyards or gardens in bare feet – so karate was already a barefoot martial art before it was practiced indoors.
Others suggest that karate is practised barefoot because it was developed by peasants who had no shoes but karate wasn’t developed by peasants it was developed by the Okinawan nobility – the Keimochi. These people would have worn geta, thonged wooden clogs when walking outdoors. So a lack of shoes does not explain why karate developed as a barefoot martial art.
2. Health and safety. This refers to health and safety in a dojo setting. It is suggested that shoes bring dirt into the dojo and may damage mats. This is true if you are talking about normal outdoor footwear but people practising kung fu, for example, always train in soft martial arts shoes, which presumably don’t damage mats or dirty the floor.
Most ‘health’ arguments I have read seem to refer to keeping the dojo floor clean rather than a concern for the practitioner’s feet. The downside of practising barefoot from a health point of view is the risk of spreading fungal infections, such as Athlete’s foot, or viral infections, such as verrucas. Obviously it is the student’s responsibility to treat such infections promptly and abstain from training barefoot until the situation is resolved – but the idea that barefoot is healthier than wearing shoes? I’m not convinced.
I’m not sure the safety argument holds up to well either. Okay, being kicked by a shoed foot will hurt more than a barefoot one – but only if you’re wearing outdoor or hard shoes. Perhaps it doesn’t if you wear soft martial arts shoes.
3.Bio-mechanics in karate. This relates to the delivery of power when punching and kicking and being able to grip the floor in order to make strong stances and maintain balance. Every karate student learns that power starts at the feet and is transmitted up through the body to its target. It’s what we all strive to achieve through our constant practice. If we don’t grip the floor well, maintain strong stances and introduce torque (twist) into our kicks and punches, they won’t be very powerful.
This argument for barefoot training appeals to me most and makes the most sense. It would explain why karate developed as a barefoot art in the first place – before it was ever practised indoors. The strong, muscular feet needed to practice karate well (I call them karate feet – see my earlier post) don’t develop if cushioned by shoes so for this reason I think karate is best practiced barefoot.
Though I favour the bio-mechanics reason for barefoot training it is not necessarily the definitive one. I don’t know what the definitive answer is – maybe we continue to train barefoot simply because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’. What do you think?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.