Article by Emanuel Giordano

The eternal debate among today's martial arts and combat sports practitioners. Which preparation is more suitable, one based mainly on physical strength, or one purely technical? Is it better to focus everything on the physical preparation of the body (体 Tai), or on its use (用 Yo)? On the surface it may seem like a stupid question, and many believe they have the right answer, but someone will soon have to change their mind. There are roughly three opinions on this: there are supporters of pure physical strength, who believe that a good athletic preparation and a few basic techniques are enough to win every opponent; then there are the supporters of the technique, who believe that physical preparation is almost useless when one has an excellent technique; finally, there is a minority who believe that both characteristics are important.
Although the correct answer is within the reach of every expert practitioner, I have chosen to strengthen it by reporting below the opinion of some great masters of the past, in order to convince even the most stubborn.
First of all I would like to mention Yabu Kentsu sensei, Okinawan master of Karate, war hero and pioneer of the introduction of Karate in the school world. Yabu sensei dealt with the topic by talking about the distinction between Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu:
In Kenpo, the terms Tai and Yo exist. Tai [body] is mainly used to indicate strengthening the body and how to train it in such a way that it is not harmed even by a powerful opponent. […] Those who hold the opposite principle are the supporters of Yo […] You must always dodge the enemy's fist and pursue him quickly to make him lose his offensive ability. However, these two characteristics are part of both styles [Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu], and one should never be overlooked in favor of the other.
Itosu no buyuden, March 17, 1915. Full text in Italian available in the book "Karate no buyuden - la storia eroica del Karate". 
It is evident, according to what Yabu sensei wrote, that both the strengthening of the body (strength) and the mastery of its use (technique) are fundamental components. So although some styles prefer one of the two characteristics, they never neglect the other. Technique and strength are therefore fundamental and complementary components, as we will also see with the next quote.
The second teacher I would like to mention is Chotoku Kyan sensei. Two of Kyan sensei's characteristics were short stature and slender build, both offset by great agility and willpower. He dealt with the topic in the article Karate no omoide:
Tradition says that too much force is bad for oneself. This is very wrong. If a man has a degree of skill equal to another, and also has more strength - in other words, if there is only difference in strength between the two - it is fair to say that the stronger man will win. However, it often happens that even the strongest man is defeated by a weaker but more skilled opponent, because the weaker man uses his technique effectively, while the stronger man does not exploit his superior strength, according to the Karate theories. However, if a strong man is too dependent on his strength […] he will completely fail against well balanced fighters [technique and strength], because he does not have Buryoku [martial power]. The power of Buryoku does not derive from size or strength, but from training in martial arts. [...] This power is added to the body's natural power through training. Since ancient times, many little people have become experts in Karate. These are the ones who are willing to put in ten times more effort than other people to make up for their weaknesses.
In another paragraph he adds:
Some people believe that chiishi and sashi [strengthening tools] are part of Karate, but this is completely wrong. Chiishi and sashi are used to strengthen muscles and bones, and to develop a strong grip. [...] However, you cannot develop all the power of Karate in the body simply by strengthening muscles and bones. You have to hit the makiwara to forge all the body power of the attack.
Karate no omoide, 7 May 1942. Full text in Italian available in the book "Karate no buyuden 2 - la storia eroica del Karate, parte seconda".
Kyan sensei confirms the importance of the two characteristics, specifying that with the same technical ability it is likely that the strongest contender will win, but also that the technique can compensate for the difference in strength. Once again, therefore, the importance of both components is confirmed. Kyan sensei also specifies the difference between the general strengthening of the body, carried out for example with various types of heavy tools, and the specific strengthening of attack techniques, carried out with suitable tools, such as makiwara.
Choshin Chibana sensei cited an old Okinawan legend in the first part of the Taidan article, sometimes attributed to Itosu sensei, which was used to explain the importance of the balance between strength and technique.
[...]Back then, a strongman named Magi Oshima came to Okinawa and bullied the city of Tsuji every night. Three bushi, Ukuta, Matsumoto and Chan Makabi challenged this Magi Oshima, but Oshima defeated the light [nimble] Makabi [...] and defeated the mighty Ukuta [...], but Matsumoto ultimately defeated Oshima [using] both the strength and technique.
Taidan, September 24, 1957. Full text in Italian available in the book "Karate no buyuden - la storia eroica del Karate".
This legend wants to teach Karate practitioners the importance of the balance between the two characteristics. If we pay little attention to strength, our technique will not be enough to defeat a strong opponent; if little attention is paid to technique, our strength will not help us in overpowering an agile and technically superior fighter. Although Matsumoto did not have Makabi's technique, nor Ukuta's strength, he was a more complete fighter than them, having well balanced the two characteristics, while not excelling in either of them.
As I said, the answer was obvious for a small part of the more experienced practitioners: not only strength and technique must be cultivated both, but it is preferable to find the balance between the two components rather than excel in one, leaving out the other. I know that now some of you are wondering what the need was to explain the obvious. Well, what is obvious to some is not obvious to many others. It is very easy to come across inexperienced practitioners, convinced that the size of the body and physical strength are the only important thing, or the exact opposite, that is, that it will be enough for them to master the techniques to defeat much more impressive opponents. These are thoughts that have always "lived" in the martial arts environment. It is no coincidence that at a certain point the story reported by Chibana sensei was created (perhaps based on real facts then fictionalized. Chan Makabi, in fact, was Makabe Choken), to explain in a simple way the importance of the balance between strength and technique. This story is yet another demonstration of how easy it is to explain things to everyone, through the use of examples and similes, something that the great masters of the past often used, in full contrast with what some contemporary Western masters do, who they love to cloak themselves and cloak their schools in a coat of senseless and anachronistic mysticism. In fact, to close with a quote from Miyagi Chojun sensei:
The days when Karate was taught in secret are over, and the new era has arrived in which we practice and study Karate publicly and officially. Therefore, the future of Karate-do is bright. Taking this opportunity, we should stop publicizing Karate as a mysterious and magical fighting art, [native] to a small archipelago called Ryukyu.
Ryukyu Kenpo Karate-do Enkaku Gaiyo, January 28, 1936. Full text in Italian available in the book "Karate no buyuden 2 - la storia eroica del Karate, parte seconda".
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata 2" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)
  • "The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)