Sound Effects in Karate Kobudo – Theatralical or Functional?

Sound effects in karate and kobudo are an underestimated part of the art of performance. The best known example of it is slapping the uniform (dogi) with the pull back hand (hiki-te) while executing a technique with the other hand. The typical suspects of dogi-slapping are karate practitioners in the field of competitive karate, particularly those specializing in kata. Dogi-slapping really wouldn’t make sense in kumite either. And it’s true, sometimes techniques performed in the air during kata don’t feel powerful, nor are they perceived as such by the spectators and judges. The sound effect produced by slapping the dogi is therefore a popular dramatic element of many kata performances, and there are true masters of this art.

Watch an example of excessive stomping on example of Yara-gwa no Tonfa here.

But this alone is not the full story. There are also plosives produced by the chest and mouth, which are synchronized in time with the dogi-slapping. And in Okinawa karate there is also the boiler breathing of Goju-ryu and the hissing of Uechi-ryu. The sychronisation becomes more difficult then.

Another underestimated effect is the rustling and clicking of the dogi, which is caused by the cut of the uniform, by a certain execution of the movement and its trajectory, a certain material composition, by washing and drying and adding or omitting fabric softeners, etc.

Some schools preach the gliding of the feet, while others prefer stomping sounds as an expression of a certain dynamic, and there are hybrids that use both variants skilfully to create a certain acoustic drama synchronized with the movement.

Cleverly employed stomping sounds are difficult to detect, especially when the movements are short and small and the performer’s demeanor draws attention to the upper extremities and the face. This method is also found on the makiwara, where synchronization of makiwara strikes with stomping sounds give the impression of considerable dynamism and destructive power.

On the one hand, one could say that the targeted use of such acoustic elements mainly serves to give the impression of dynamics and to impress an audience or judges. Why else are none of these tricks found in kumite, such as Kuyokushin? In this case, stomping sounds would be one of several theatrical sound effects to be synchronized with each other and with the movement to create a maximum dynamic impression without each being overly noticeable individually.

But there is also the completely opposite argument, namely that all these sound effects are simply the result of a correct, powerful technique. In this case, stomping would be one of several sound effects generated as an accompaniment to a functionally correct execution of technique, and which are synchronous with each other and with the technique because they are a function of the technique.

So the whole thing is a “chicken-egg causality dilemma,” which is notoriously difficult to solve.

Some schools use the heel stomp as a functional support of their technique execution.

Such sound effects are mainly used in the area of kata demonstrations, but also on the makiwara, in kihon, shime testing and other practices. They are not only used by certain groups among karate athletes, but are also found as fundamental components in so-called “traditional karate” and Okinawa karate. All groups also have their own sets of theatrical sound effects, which are synchronized both with each other and with the movement to create an overall impression. In many cases, you can tell which group is involved based solely on the properties of the artificially generated sounds. This alone is reason enough to pay attention to this phenomenon.

A significant factor in stomping is the ground surface. Therefore, people who train or perform on mats will emphasize different stomping parameters than those who train or perform on wooden floors, which greatly amplifies the stomping sound effect. Sprung floor will even provide you a tiny acceleration while at the same time it reduces the stress on the joints. On the other hand, people who train or perform on natural surfaces such as grass, sand, or stone will employ completely different types of foot movement, since there is no sound effect whatsoever. So the question arises whether the different stomping sound effects are not simply a result of the development of different training sites. Just imagine stomping on pointed pebble, or a sharp-edged coral stone.

It should be borne in mind that in Okinawa, by and large, dojos with wooden floors were built only in the modern era after 1945. From this perspective, pushing the feet with the toes over the ground should also be a rather new method, which at least requires straight and flat grounds such as mats or a sports ground, and is difficult to carry out on natural, uneven surfaces, where it would simply make little sense. Thus, it may be assumed that the stomping sound effect as a theatrical element in Okinawan dojos is a post-war development and may have had little to no functional significance in original karate and kobudo, except maybe in the mansions of the aristocratic udun and tunchi classes.

© 2023, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in The Technique of Okinawa Karate and Kobudo. Bookmark the permalink.