This Is A Traditional Dojo
Saturday I visited a karate school in Queens, NY where a longtime friend of mine now trains. As a visiting student from a different style I respectfully took my place in the back row where we all lined up at the beginning of class to bow in. Later I showed them my versions of Seisan and Kusanku kata that are common to our styles and then worked the corresponding bunkai from their system. I didn't go there to spar, but when I asked one of the seniors about sparring practice (kumite) I was taken aback by this exchange:
ME: How often do you guys spar?
STUDENT: This is a traditional dojo. We practice budo (martial ways) not sports.
ME: No kumite -- ever? The pre-set drills are nice, but wouldn't exploring some spontaneity be a good idea to see if what you're doing even works.
STUDENT (raising his voice): Kumite is not self-defense. Our system's self defense techniques are mined from the kata. Can't use them in sparring anyway, too dangerous. We don't do contests or hand out prizes or play games. We're totally traditional. That's our way.
By now I had everyone's attention. (This was a rank class for adults.) I was getting glaring looks from some of the older BBs and I was getting the impression I was wearing out my welcome. I really thought my question about kumite was rather benign. I agree that sparring or even heavy fighting is not "self defense". I admit that there are aspects of karate that are somewhat exclusive to one another. Freestyle fighting and self defense practice are one of those dichotomies.
Sparring has its uses -- and limitations. The same with kata. Kata and knowledge of their self defense applications will not teach one to "expect the unexpected." I believe that if your school doesn't employ some form of sparring you'll never get that feeling of adrenaline surge or butterflies or the uncertainty of working outside of your comfort zone. That's part of the martial way.