I have been thinking recently about the history of karate, the "invention" of kumite (in its various forms) and comparing it to the koryu practice of kumitachi.
First, lets break down both words. My japanese is horrible, so if anyone can confirm/deny my translations, it is appreciated. Kumi is a noun meaning a set, group or collection. It has the implicit meaning of pre-built or pre-arranged. Tachi means sword, and Te means hand/fist. Kumitachi is often translated as a pre-arranged two person sword form/practice, and kumite is the same but for empty-handed combat. The meaning inherent in each is a format to let the student understand the techniques being worked on in an environment which, while somewhat safe (at least to start), still adds in the variables and challenges presented by a thinking human. The responses of the attacker, while arranged, are subject to distance, timing, correct execution while at speed and under duress, to name a few variables.
During a recent seminar, I had the chance to practice some kumitachi of Ni Ten Ichi Ryu (the sword style made famous by Musashi). I really got into it, despite being banged around, and I found myself trying to emulate the feeling behind the techniques. Oddly, this is something I have yet to experience in kumite, the karate equivalent. I have tried to embody certain animals while sparring (crane and tiger, most often), but there was never the driving force of worry of injury.
While injury is prevalent in sparring conditions in karate, I think that most people do not take it as seriously, mainly because there is no clear weapon. Even using a "soft" weapon like shinai, there is a greater sense of urgency, danger and realism that is often not captured in karate sparring.
I found this after recently working on footwork. While the footwork was interesting, it was not a new concept and I found that I have been using similar techniques unconsciously. I hope to attribute my use to over a decade in the arts, but perhaps it was mere fluke. But this brought me to the realization that I wasn't getting as much out of my kumite as I did out of the kumitachi. My partner was never in any danger of doing me serious harm - if they had been armed with any form of weapon, the intent and seriousness of my response would be altered. I realized that this same intent was not mirrored by my partners - jiyu kumite (free sparring) was more of a game. Indeed, the footwork we had been working was from a sort of "bouncing" movement common in sport fighting. The term we use if yadi-yashi or yadi ashi, neither of which I can find as correct or adequate translations.
This led to another realization on my part. I don't care for sport kumite. While footwork, distancing, timing, stances, generation of power are all the same, the sort of in and out bouncing movement is entirely in-congruent with a realistic self-defence scenario. My interests lie outside of that, to something which stretches to reach the mental state of ancient warriors of times past. The ability to summon and maintain mushin (no-mind) and assert my ability to get home alive is the real goal.
This is the attitude that I will strive to induce and use in my own sparring from this point onwards. But this leaves the question, what should replace traditional kumite? Is it just a matter of intent? Do we (karateka as a whole) need to work more realistic scenarios, pulling from our knowledge of kata? While some may do this, I cannot say that this is my case. I have yet to internalize the intent of kata and been able to apply it in a kumite fashion (perhaps due to the aforementioned sport-style).
A sobering set of thoughts, on my end.