Things to consider:
Point 1: Try all the movements in whatever katas you practice against a partner who’s grabbing onto you (clinch range rather than from a distance). You’ll start to wrap up limbs, push and pull their body around, etc. Things will start to make sense and bunkai will begin to manifest itself naturally.
Point 2: The island of Okinawa had an indigenous form of wrestling called “tegumi.” This is the father of modern Okinawan Sumo or “shima.”
Point 3: All fighting arts on a higher level will gravitate towards the same conclusions when their ultimate goal is efficiency. Efficiency in movement means using leverage, human anatomical structures for frames, the laws of physics, and putting your entire body weight behind whatever technique you’re trying to execute.
So, now what?
With those 3 points in mind, without a doubt karate by today’s standards should be redefined as an art that includes as much grappling as it does striking.
Is this the case among karate schools at this moment in time?
Many martial arts styles and pure self-defense programs commonly teach that once an attacker throws a punch, you need to cover up and close the distance. The typical “imagine his arm is a baseball bat” analogy comes to mind. You want to get in as close as possible so that you don’t get hit by the end of the bat. Once you’ve closed the distance and wrapped him up, the karate techniques come out. Slipping, arm-drags, body shifting, lowering your center, sprawling, pressure points, etc., these are all moves found in kata and are a necessity once you’re in a clinch range.
Now, let’s go back to Point 2 above. This is our contribution to this global discussion. If the Okinawans, a farming-based island nation, were a culture that has roots in sumo and wrestling then most likely Okinawan children grew up roughhousing and wrestling amongst each other on a daily basis.
Check out this excerpt from the famous book, Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters by Shoshin Nagamine.
If you belonged to a culture that has a foundation in grappling, then the fighting art derived from that should emphasize working on the lesser developed skills (striking) and mastering your already developed skills (grappling). It seems like everyone else looking in on this island nation only saw the striking aspect of the art.
Modern society has drifted away from a farming lifestyle but we still hear phrases like “farm-boy strength,” “old-man strength” and even “wrestler’s strength” being mentioned. Many of us know a guy who wrestled in high school but hasn’t worked out in years yet still has freakishly strong grips. Or the dad who grew up doing odd jobs in construction and can still beat you in an arm-wrestle without breaking a sweat.
The Okinawan youth probably experienced the same thing by roughhousing and that is what’s missing in today’s karate interpretation.
We need to embrace the grind.
As more karate schools are opening up to the grappling aspect of karate and incorporating it into practice, don’t forget that there’s a difference between learning many different submission holds versus executing that hold in an exchange filled with muscular tension and constant physical stress. The benefit of doing tegumi drills without striking is that you can go 100% without trying to knock each other’s heads off. Of course you don’t want to break a limb either but flowing in a hard, slow, methodical fashion to develop that wrestler’s strength is essential for karate grappling. Additionally, you’ll be forced to work on your breathing as well just to maintain that level of heavy tension.
Maybe your school already practices joint manipulations and submissions, are you drilling them with varying degrees of resistance? Start grinding them out to develop that farmer’s strength. And don’t forget, everything should be related back to kata. At the end of the day, all combative movement can be derived from kata and without this fact grounding the art, karate would just become like any other modern fad that has forgotten its origins.
Where do the strikes come in then? Other than actually using strikes to cause damage, they also help with your grappling set-ups and to disengage the opponent’s thought process (get their mind off of their original intention). Rickson Gracie, the proclaimed greatest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) practitioner of all time, followed a very basic formula as his philosophy: close the distance and clinch, takedown, work to achieve a dominant position, strike to expose the opponent then submit.
Check out this photo taken out of Kodokan Judo written by the founder of Judo, Jiguro Kano. The last sentence of #193 states that as the opponent tries to stab you, you should “shout and punch him between the eyes with your right fist” (sounds like karate), and then #194, “immediately take his right wrist from above with your right hand and pull it toward your right hip” (sounds like the pulling hand or "hikite" in karate).
So you can see that even in today’s definition of a "pure grappling art" such as Judo or BJJ, there were strikes taught as a means to set up the takedown or throw.
We have to move away from the dichotomy of striking versus grappling. Understand that all styles aim to reach the same conclusion: efficiency, and that idea requires no stone be left unturned. Original karate historically was rooted in grappling but most of it has been lost. Maybe training in pure grappling styles and relating it back to kata would be the next best solution until karate itself can rediscover its foundation. If you already practice grappling in your karate dojo, again start increasing the resistance to really develop your strength. Karate is too beautiful an art to be reduced to just kicking and punching. It is very complete and worth the effort to preserve in the most genuine way possible.