Depending on your lineage of karate, the role of the 'hips' rests somewhere on a spectrum from absolutely necessary to not needed at all. In Chito Ryu, the use of the hips is significant but not always understood. This shortcoming may be partially due to the ‘lost in translation’ as karate moved from Okinawa to Japan and then into the English speaking world.
Starting my karate training in Canada, I was always told to rotate my hips to help generate a whipping motion; thus, when the word ‘hip’ was used, it meant the skeletal structure. Later I moved to Japan, where koshi (腰) was used. However, koshi referred to the lower back; waist; hips; lumbar region - so a bit more than the bone focus I had understood in Canada. This was a far broader region and appeared to use the large muscles of the lower back and buttocks to generate power, stability and movement. Yet, all was not done as I soon learned that in Okinawa they use the Okinawan dialects’ gamaku (横っ腹) which entailed the entire skeletal system of the core region, ligaments, tendons and muscular structure of the midsection of the body.
Moreover, in most cases also included the use of the diaphragm to regulate breathing. This notion of using the core of the body to stabilise balance, cultivate power and enable breathing, in theory, should lead to a concentration of power called Chinkunchi (ちんくんち). Oh, and let’s not forget a ‘punch’ is better understood as a thrust (tsuki) to generate ‘atifa’ (衝撃波) which is a shock wave of energy given to the opponent (although to be fair I have hardly ever heard this term used).
Confused? It's OK. Where I work our head nurse is Okinawa and she was not overly familiar with the term gamaku. She heard the older people using it, but when she was growing up her seniors always told her to speak mainland Japanese and not the local dialect. She is saddened now as the dialect is dying out and with it some of the beauty that is Okinawa culture.
So next time at training when someone tells you to ‘rotate your hips’ - ask them what exactly they mean!
For more interesting ideas on Okinawan dialect and karate-do visit the site:
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan