I actually found it difficult determining exactly where I should post this, because I think their are several different approaches to this question and even as I write this text now, I am not entirely sure what I intend to say
Put simply, my question is about where a person should hold his hands in his "fighting stance". Before people reply with certain answers that skirt the issue, I realize that stances are best thought as transient positions. Most likely if you are in a social situation and someone starts something, you do not go into an impressive, though rigid, front stance and wait for the first attack. I know that its often helpful to practice from a natural stance to get use to reacting from a position you'll likely be in. However, I don't think the question of fighting stance is, therefore, irrelevent. There may very well come a time when the situation does require or results in you assuming a more blatant fighting position. Surely, when you conduct sparring in class, students do use certain positions clearly intended for fighting.
I'd like to expound on my question by explaining the real point of contention in my mind. The instructors of my karate club were never dogmatic when it came to good form. They prefer to allow us to explore and play and figure out on our own how to best utilize our own bodies to be effective tools of self defense. It goes without saying, they never bothered to provide any clear instruction on what a proper "kumite stance" looks like. This lack of information has made us into creative and critically thinking martial artists. From watching videos and attending other classes though, I believe that there exist many other schools who, aesthetically speaking, look better when performing kata than we do. (This is not a point of insecurity, because I believe there is only so much value in looking at "proper" form). One such school, a Shotokan club I attended for a single session, provided very clear instruction on what the proper kumite stance is. All karateka among us know this stance. Its a front stance with the hands protecting the midsection. One hand is forward, one hand is back. One may be slightly higher than the other, but they are generally protecting the area between the solar plexus and the zyphoid process. The contention arises when I think to other arts I have studied. Wing Chun usually has the front hand bent at a forty-five degree angle with the thumb even with your own nose and the back level with the elbow of the front arm. The logic for this position is fairly simple, primarily having to do with the concept of protecting the center line--an idea fundamental to everything in Wing Chun. What really inspired this question was thinking to my limited experience in Krav Maga and MMA. In both of those systems, the hands are held at the same level, hands on either side of your eyes, elbows pointing down. I tend to like this posture, and its equivalent kamae in Ninjutsu, known as Hoko no Kamae, because it resembles a position one might assume when simply trying to pacify someone. The "please-don't-hurt-me" stance, as I call it. Additionally, holding the hands up by the head better protects your skull, and reduces risk of being knocked unconcious.
I have spoken to people who have participated extensively in Full Contact Karate (usually mingled with other styles, most commonly Muy Thai) and other such modern adaptations of karate. They also tend to use the please-don't-hurt-me stance Regardless, the "kumite stance" seems strongly associated with most styles of traditional karate. I vaguely remember seeing old videos and photographs of famous masters who assumed the kumite stance. Should I start my own club some day, I can't say I'd choose to encourage the kumite stance over the please-don't-hurt-me stance. But the kumite stance seems to have tradition attached to it.
Does anyone know where the kumite stance comes from? Is it simply another product of the movement of karate from self defense to school yards and tournaments? Does it go deeper than that? I am vexed.