by Phillip Starr
All martial disciplines feature various forms of kamae, which are physical postures that practitioners assume just prior to engaging an opponent. Most of them are proactive; designed to provide a measure of protection against an assailant's attack. In this wise, they may be compared to a shield. However, the proper kamae should also bring many of the practitioner's bodily weapons to the fore. Thus, he is prepared to defend himself and deliver a quick counter-attack.
The traditional martial disciplines wherein the warrior was armed with some kind of weapon often featured “openings”, apparent flaws in the postures that could be exploited by the enemy. However, these gaps were intentional; they were actually traps that were meant to ensnare an unsuspecting foe. The warrior meant to tempt his opponent into trying to take advantage of his supposed weakness. Naturally, the opening had to be rather small; if it was too obvious, his adversary would see the flaw for what it was.
Using this type of tactic could provide the feudal warrior with a real advantage. He would know from what quarter his enemy's attack would come and he'd be prepared to deal with it instantaneously. He wanted to induce his opponent to attack a target that wasn't really there.
It's interesting to note that the bare-handed martial forms didn't utilize any kind of formal pre-combat kamae. Early films of karate instructors (many of whom would go on to become some of the most famous teachers in the world) show them engaged in jyu-kumite (freestyle sparring), which, was a new innovation at that time. There is no distinctive placement of the arms and hands.
As time marched on and more karate enthusiasts began to participate in this new-fangled exercise known as jyu-kumite, well-defined kamae began to emerge. Not unexpectedly, they initially often resembled a type of kamae used in classical kenjutsu (swordsmanship). Their interest was in winning the match. They wanted to score points against the opponent while preventing him from doing the same thing to them.
With the advent of karate tournaments in the West, the kamae underwent further modifications, especially after the introduction of padded gloves and footgear. Fighters assumed the kamae that one would expect of a Western boxer, whose hands are employed to protect his face and head (thus preventing a knockout) whilst his arms and elbows are used to protect his torso. Because striking below the belt and kicking into the groin and legs are not permitted, there is no need to concern oneself with their protection.
The differences between the classical forms of kamae and the more contemporary versions may not seem glaringly obvious but a little introspection will reveal the truth. The feudal warrior's primary concern was the destruction of his enemy and the preservation of his clan. Self-defense was of secondary importance. His approach to combat was aggressive; his intention was to draw his enemy into a trap and utterly destroy him.
After the disappearance of the feudal systems, the emphasis shifted to a more personal level, that of self-protection and defense. And when competition walked onto the scene, winning the game became the first priority.
In so far as actual self-defense is concerned, you usually don't have time to adopt some kind of formal kamae. Things often happen to quickly for that. It's best to utilize the principles of the formal kamae in common, everyday postures. These are often referred to as shizentai (natural postures). After all, it's from these positions that you may have to move quickly and defend yourself. It sounds simple enough to do but it will actually require some considerable practice. This is why the founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba, said, "Kamae is for beginners. Shizentai is for advanced pupils."