I wanted to start this controversal topic to see if I can challenge the view of Karate being a civilian fighting system.
I hope that this emerges into a really good discussion. Okay lets start.
Historically Karate has its roots among other things in the chinese military environment. Thus there was nothing civilian in it. The Shaolin monks used their art to defend themselfs agains imperial soldiers. Soldiers used fighting methods on the battlefield.
In the 16th century (1562 to be exact) a general by the name of Ch’i Chi-Kuang wrote a military manual that was published as "Chi-Hsiao Hsin-Shu". That important book had a great influence on another military encyclopedia that was published in 1617, the "Wu-Pei Chih" a.k.a. "Bubishi" in Japan. That manual contains fighting postures (a Kata if you like) and their explanations.
Karate or Te was commonly practised within the noble classes (peichin etc.) in the Ryukyu kingdom. After the Ryukyu kingdom was united by King Sho Hashi the local warlords where forced to settle in the Shuri region. Whenever there was trouble, it was caused by those noble agitators. Thus the law enforcement officers had to fight more or less skilled Karateka. Matsumura was chiefbodyguard for three ryukyuan kings. He was responsible for the kings safety. Thus he was a professional fighter (military background?). The story of Matsumura against a shipwrecked chinese named Chinto is a good excample. Matsumura vs. Chinto was nothing civilian. There where both skilled fighters.
The masters of the past regularly tested their skills against each other. That happend basically in Tsuji the famous redlight district. Motobu was notorious for that kind of spare time activities.
Karate was also used for military training at the Rikugun Nakano-Gakko http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakano_School. Famous Karate expert Yabu Kentsu joined the Japanese Army and served in Manchuria during the First Sino-Japanese War. He was promoted to lieutenant, but was better known as gunso, or sergeant.
Karate was surely applicable against "civilian" attacks but not exclusivly as it is tought nowadays. So back in the old days it was more likely to be attacked by a karatepunch or kick than it is today.
The assumption of Karate beeing a civilian fighting system relies heavily on the old original sources from the past masters like Itosu.
For example in Itosus 10 precepts or more precisely in the first precept the following is statet.
Translation that Iain posted on this website.
It (Karate) is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian.
Translation from Patrick McCarthy (Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts Part 2. S.15):
Toudi (Karate) is not meant to be employed against an adversary but rather as a means to avoid the use of one's hand and feet in the event of a potentially dangerous encounter.
Translation from Henning Wittwers Book "Shotokan-überlieferte Texte & historische Untersuchungen" (only available in German) translated into English by me.
You should never mind fighting an enemy. Even if you are alone against 10.000 bandits or people who do act agains the law, you have to avoid throwing punches. It should be the main aim to never injure any other person with the fists and feet.
Decide for yourself. Iains translation supports the idea that Karate was not meant to be applied against other trained assailants. The translations by McCarthy and Wittwer stresses more on Karate not being used under any circumstances.
What is translation and what is interpretation. Lets see.
We all know Funakoshis 20 precepts. Lets take for example the 18th precept. "Kata wa tadashiku, jissen wa betsumono".
That is commonly translated as "perform Kata correctly, a real fight is another matter" or "Kata must always be performed exactly; Combat is another matter".
If you really translate it, than it says nothing more than "Kata is evidently, Jissen (real combat) is an exception (another thing)". Nothing that says "perform" or "perform correctly". See what I mean? Perform Kata correctly is an interpretation.
So my question is: Is Karate a civilian fighting system?
Maybe it was a non civilian fighting system back in the old days. But if so, the applications the old masters tought were basically against Karate type attacks. Take a look into the book "Karate Do Taikan". There you can see Shimpan Gusukuma performing kata applications. Take a look here: http://www.karatebyjesse.com/?p=1831
I am really curious whats your conclusion.
So flame on.