A “forgotten” technique, Ateru waza 忘れられた (?) 技術 – 当てる技
In this essay I plan to present one serious but un-noticed or forgotten problem in modern day karate training. What I am referring to is a diluted or misdirected objective in the kumite (sparring) training in most traditional dojo. I consider it very serious and wish more people would pay attention to this. However, not too many practitioners would even care to know about this. Currently, karate is enjoying lots of popularity and will most likely become even more popular after the event in the 2020 Olympics. So naturally, not only most of the practitioners but also many instructors are very happy about this. They believe karate is progressing well and karate is even “advancing”.
I am a budo karateka, thus I am seriously concerned. I am not simply opposed to karate being included in the Olympics but the problem is even deeper seated. I am afraid the current trend would ruin the budo or true karate that was handed down from our forefathers for many centuries. On the other hand the popularity that we are seeing lately is a process to make karate a useless or ineffective “martial art”. In Japanese we call this a tiger with the fangs pulled out. In fact, what we see in what we call sport karate is a sports event and cannot be considered a martial art.
OK enough of the introduction. Now I need to explain further the subject itself. I am referring to a technique that is called in Japanese, ateru gijutsu (当てる技術) or waza (技). It literally means a technique of hitting the target. I am sure you would agree that an attacking technique, either punching or kicking, is ineffective if it misses the target. It does not matter how fast or strong that technique may be, that technique is “wasted”.
I suspect that you have experienced in your kumite training that it was difficult to land your attacking techniques on to the precise target. I also assume that you have experienced that your techniques were either too far from or too close to the target. This is a technical problem and it can be solved if proper training were implemented and practiced. So, you may ask, “Then, what is the problem here?”
OK let me explain. I am aware that the problem is not very obvious. So, we must go beyond what it seems superficially. I will cover the reasons why we have these problems and how we can solve them as we progress in this essay. I hope to reveal the core of the problem that sits deep inside of traditional karate.
Regarding the subject of hitting a target we must first cover the important subject of the targets themselves. As most of the readers already know what the targets are in kumite, they may think it is unnecessary to discuss this topic. Though, it may seem unimportant, it really is an important topic to discuss.
This is an important subject as I understand that most karate students do not learn the true targets. You may consider my statement as nonsense or groundless. I am aware that you have learned what the targets are from your teacher and you are very clear about them in your kumite training. They are, of course, jodan, chudan and gedan.
Here is the illustration of target areas you learn about in your karate training. You will most likely agree that jodan means any part above the neck line or face. Chudan is between the neck-line to the belt or the mid-section. Then gedan is all the area below the belt line but typically the groin area. It looks very simple and clear, so we don’t see any problems here.
Unfortunately, the very understanding of these targets themselves is technically incorrect or at the best, inaccurate. More importantly, we sadly lack the understanding or appreciation of the critical points of the body or kyusho (急所). I will touch on this subject later in this essay.
Let me explain the problem by taking some examples of the differences between martial arts fighting (including street fight) and a typical kumite training conducted in a standard dojo of traditional styles.
For jodan or head level target, what do we learn in our kumite training? We are taught to aim at, ambiguously, “face”. I am sure you will agree that we do not pay much attention to the details of the jodan target. In a tournament kumite, if your jodan oizuki (straight punch) touches the opponent’s nose or even its vicinity if not too far off, you receive a point.
However, if you are familiar with street fighting or boxing, you know that hitting your opponent on his nose or the mouth may not result in a knock-out. It may cause a nose bleed, a tooth or two might fall off, but he will still be standing up.
There are other specific spots that are known to produce a knock out. The well-known spots include under the chin, the corner of the jaw and a temple. If you are a boxing fan, you have seen the knock outs and witnessed the effective spots in the face/head area. Most common knock out punches in boxing come in either an upper cut under the chin, hook punch on the jaw (photo right) or to the temple. And in boxing those are the targets they aim to hit. Why do we have this difference in our training? We will discover this as we progress our discussion in this essay.
Let’s continue to chudan or mid-section target training. As we agree, most of the chudan attacks executed by the practitioners, as I have observed, are aimed at the general mid-section area. This is the area that is well protected by the strong abdominal muscles, rectus abdominis. There are many critical areas in the chudan area such as solar plexus, sides of the ribs, kidney, arm pits, collar bones, etc. You can see these and other critical spots in the kyusho chart shown later. Strangely to a budo practitioner like me, those precise spots or areas are rarely explained or focused on in the standard kumite training in our dojo nowadays.
In addition, we practice chudan nukite (spear hand) in our kihon training and we also find this technique in many kata including Heian nidan, Heian sandan, Kanku dai, etc. However, this particular technique is rarely used in our kumite training. For chudan, we almost always use chudan gyakuzuki (reverse punch, image left) or oizuki (stepping punch) for arm technique. In fact, even for attacking jodan area, we rarely use open hand techniques. We need to discuss later why this is so.
Gedan area is even more notable. Though, groin attack is an effective one, attacking this area is not allowed in a tournament and even in the regular kumite training in most dojo. Groin is not the only spot in gedan, there are other spots in gedan that are effective in a street fight. They include the knee, the shin and even on top of the foot. You know this because you will feel great pain when someone stomps on your foot, especially if it was done by a woman with a high heel shoe. Kicking the knee from the side or from the rear, as well as from the front when the knee is not bent, will cause a great deal of damage and it will certainly cause some serious damage to the opponent. Kicking or hitting the shin area also causes great pain. There are other kyusho areas in gedan but I will not list them here as I feel I have listed enough examples. Once again, all these areas in the lower half (below the hips) of the body are taught very little in most of the dojo. Even if those spots may be taught in your dojo, your sensei will most likely not allow you to attack those spots or areas in your kumite training.
Up till now, I have illustrated that the targets we refer to in our kumite are at best vague and they are, in fact, inaccurate or even incorrect. Many of us lack the knowledge of the critical spots and correct (and real) distancing in our kumite training.
OK, I believe I have spent enough time on the problems relating to the targets in our kumite training. Now we must ask, “Why do we have this problem?” There are two structural or fundamental reasons or causes for these “flaws”. The causes are A) sport karate and B) sundome (寸止め) concept.
A) Sport karate
- Sport karate does not mean only tournament karate. The problem does not stop there. It includes our regular dojo kumite training because in most cases we must perform kumite under certain rules or restrictions. Tournament kumite has more restrictions and limitations. This means the practitioners are prohibited from doing many techniques such as kicking the groin area, or stabbing the eyes with the finger, as an instance. There are many other techniques that are prohibited and I do not think I need to list them all here as I am sure you know them. I find it ironic that those techniques are considered “too dangerous”, whilst karate is supposed to be the martial art to kill. We, the old timers used to say about our punches as “Ikken hissatsu (一拳必殺, one punch can kill you)”. Unfortunately, this concept seems to be long forgotten now.
This is not just an occurrence that is strictly limited to karate. The unavoidable fact is that the permitted targets have to be set as a rule, a natural result when a martial art becomes a sport. Look at kendo (剣道), the art of Japanese fencing. They have only 4 targets that are permitted and where you can receive a scoring point. They are men (面, face), do (胴, body), kote (小手, wrist) and tsuki (突き, thrust to throat). This means a kendo practitioner does not receive a point when he hits other parts of the body such as arm, shoulder, leg, etc. When you think of a fight with a real sword, cutting a shoulder, arm or leg of an opponent is a very effective strike. In fact, trying to cut the opponent’s shin was one of the most popular attacking techniques by the ancient samurai. You can easily imagine, trying to cut someone on the head was less favored as the head is a more challenging target. The opponent’s sword is right in front of your face and the head is where the eyes are located. Thus, you can easily see that the lower part of your body is completely unprotected as it is far from your eyes. Even though, in a real fight situation, attacking gedan area is an effective technique, it is not included as a legitimate target in kendo. I can discuss the similar situation with judo (柔道) and kyudo (弓道), the art of archery, but I will not do so in this essay as I think it is somewhat redundant.
I respect kendo as they are sincerely trying to preserve the samurai spirit and bujutsu (武術) in their attitude and spirit. Having said that I must also say that their techniques, by most of the practitioners, are no longer realistic or effective from the perspective of real sword fighting. You cannot blame them as this is what the rules do. The rules are there to protect the competitors. Otherwise, you will see too many serious injuries and that will not be accepted as a sport or in a commercial dojo. The rules are also necessary to make competition itself possible. Without them, it will be a life or death match where a loser ends up either maimed or dead. One of the important rules is a definition of the targets. By having the clear definition and agreement, one can receive a point in a match.
How about karate? In 1935, Gichin Funakoshi (船越義珍), the founder of Shotokan karate, published a book, Karatedo Kyohan (空手道教範) which is the first karate book published in the world and is now considered as the bible of Shotokan. At the end of the book, he added an illustration of all kyusho spots of the human body (photo right). It clearly shows more than a few dozen critical spots. Funakoshi believed karate was budo and taught it as so. In fact, he was against having tournaments (sport karate) until his death. The first all Japan karate tournament hosted by Japan Karate Association (JKA, Nakayama group) had to wait till 1954, the year Funakoshi passed.
Once it becomes a sport event governed by the rules, the kumite training in the dojo naturally followed suit with those rules and principles. As a result, spear hand techniques such as stabbing an eye was prohibited and not practiced. In many of the dojos these days, the practitioners regularly wear light gloves to practice kumite. This makes it impossible to make any other types of fist other than seiken (正拳, regular fist). Sadly, this is how ipponken (一本拳), hirken (平拳) and nakadakaken (中高拳) had no choice but to disappear from our regular training.
I am sure you agree that punching almost any part of mid-section is considered as a legitimate or score-able target. If a practitioner punches or kicks gedan, it will be considered as a foul and this technique also has disappeared from our kumite training.
Considering all those facts described above, our typical kumite rules had to come down to only two targets; jodan and chudan. We thought the limitation of kendo targets to 4 areas was bad but we have now only two targets. As we know, it is that way in tournament kumite as well. You only need to know those two targets or general areas in a match. Thus knowing the locations of not only the kyusho but all other critical points as well as non-tournament use techniques became unimportant or unnecessary in our regular training.
So I have discussed that not knowing the precise (effective) targets is one serious flaw of modern day karate training. I believe I have covered enough on the inaccuracy and vagueness of the targets. We need to move on to the next problem that is also pervasive in our karate training and I consider it even more serious.
- Hitting a target
Even if we find or know a correct target, it would still be a problem if we fail to hit it. It does not matter how strong or fast your attacking techniques may be, if you miss the target. More-over, if the power is weak or the distance is incorrect upon hitting the target, that attacking technique will not be effective or damaging.
I am sure the readers will agree that if your punch is too far from a target or if an impact when you hit is too weak, such an attack will have no or little desired effect on the opponent. We know that a punch or a kick must hit a target in a certain way so that it will have an effective (devastating or painful) impact on the opponent. The distance and the power are the two major factors that must be correct for an effective technique. It sounds straight forward and all of us know it, but at the same time, we also know that it is not that easy to manage or control them. I wonder why this subject is not discussed or taught much. I suspect it is because many of the instructors do not consider it necessary.
Therefore, I feel it is my responsibility to discuss this subject here and see if we can find a solution.
First, I must mention that a technique to hit a target accurately with the proper distance and power requires a specific technique and training. Sadly, this technique is forgotten by many and ignored by most simply because we do not see it as necessary, thus we train accordingly.
When we talk about landing your attacking techniques on a target, ateru gijutsu, some of you will quickly think about your hours of training on a makiwara board. Thus, you may object to my earlier statement and tell me, “Oh we punch makiwara every day so we are practicing how to hit a target”.
I do not deny the benefit of punching a makiwara board. Unfortunately, we must realize that makiwara training is only a minor part of ateru gijutsu. By punching a makiwara, one will learn how to strike a target firmly, but at a set distance. Most of the practitioners, however, do not learn how to acquire the correct distance while moving, at the same time, acquiring necessary impact on the target. This happens as the opponent is not a stationary target like a makiwara. He is constantly moving and shifting.
Because of this shortcoming, we witness, at least two flaws in a kumite situation.
One is the target is too far so your attacking techniques do not or barely reach the target thus resulting with no or little damage to the opponent. This happens mainly because you are not supposed to hit the opponent in kumite practice or in a match. In fact, if you make excessive contact, you will receive a negative point and in some cases you will instantly lose the match. Therefore, you tend to throw a technique that is a slightly short from the actual contact point. Even though the adjustment or a considered extra distance may be very minute, say a few millimeters, it may make a world of difference in a real fight. In other words, it may be a difference between a light contact with little damage or a total knock out. I will discuss this kumite rule of not hitting the target later in this essay.
Another common problem I observe among the fighters is the incapability of throwing an effective attack in a extremely close distance (a few inches away) from the opponent. In standard kumite practice, we are trained to throw a technique with a full arm or leg extension. If one finds oneself in any distance closer than those, one finds it difficult or is incapable of throwing an effective technique (both block and attack). It is hard to believe as we have learned the attacking techniques using the elbow, palm heel, fore-arm, shoulder, head, knee, shin, etc. in kata, but yet these techniques, commonly, have not been practiced or taught in our regular kumite training.
When you were too close and it is difficult to make an effective jodan (face) attack, in some dojo they teach you this. Maybe, you may have an experience that your sensei taught you to “punch through” the head by extending your arm next to the opponent’s head. Yes, in this manner, you can punch very powerfully and you can extend your punching arm fully. You also feel good as you imagine (falsely that is, I may add) that you have punched through your opponent head. I must say that it is highly debatable if this training method is beneficial or helpful. Regardless, what you are taught to do is simply punching only the air next to the opponent’s head. This means you missed the target on purpose and for this reason I am not sure if I can recommend this training method.
Now we need to ask why we have these problems. It does not stem from poor training alone. The sad part of the problem is few karateka realize there is a serious problem. It is also unfortunate that not too many instructors know how to fix the problem even if they find the causes. Regardless, we need to know the causes to understand the problem better. I wish to bring up two major ones that lay in the core of modern day traditional karate.
The first one is that the traditional karate kumite is based on sundome or non-contact system. Earlier in this essay I stated that we are not allowed to make contact, especially to the jodan area in our kumite practice. It is of course too dangerous to let the practitioners hit the face area freely and with full power. That will certainly result in many injuries and it will be impossible to have a safe kumite training session.
In order to combat this situation, the traditional karate styles adopted a non-contact system. This is the same method adopted by kenjutsu (剣術, an art using the real swords). Even though they practice with wooden swords for the safety, they had to adopt the non-contact concept (photo left) as you can easily guess it could cause a serious injury if you hit someone’s head with a wooden sword. kenjutsu and iaido (居合道, sword drawing art) believe in non-contact and they do not sanction any tournaments. Aikido is another art that adopts mostly throws but they also have hitting and kicking techniques. They also practice with no contact rule and they do not have any tournaments.
Once they allowed tournaments, many of the martial arts such as kendo, judo and karate had to introduce some safety measures. One idea was to soften the weapons using gloves and padding in karate, shinai (竹刀) or bamboo sticks in kendo, tatami mats in judo, etc.
The other safety measure is to wear some protectors such as bogu (防具) in kendo. Even though they switched the swords to bamboo sticks in kendo, it is still too dangerous to hit each other so they protect their jodan, chudan and the wrist area with the firm protectors. With the protectors, the practitioners can actually hit the opponents with full force but without any hesitation or worry about injuries.
Let’s look at the modern day sport karate. It has adopted the gloves and the protectors. If we have a sundome (non contact) rule then there shouldn’t be any contact or injuries? Theoretically that is true and we may wish it is possible. But in the reality of the tournament situation, we discovered that the tournament kumite encountered many “accidents”. Some of them happened due to the over excitement by the participants. The biggest reason was that it is extremely difficult for the participants to judge the distance to their opponents, in the fast and continuously moving kumite exchanges.
OK we understand why the art of hitting the targets became less important. Then, how can we fix these problems? Let’s look at two causes: sundome and sport karate.
Do we have to wear protective gear if we allow the practitioners to hit each other on the critical points of our body and in full force? This is how Kendo was invented from kenjutsu. In fact, we have a Karate style, koshiki (硬式) karate meaning “hard” style Karate with full protectors (photo left). Even though you can hit or kick in full force, you still have a problem of not knowing or practicing the kyusho areas that are important in martial arts.
We also have a full contact style such as Kyokushinkai (極真会, photo right below). It is a knock out style where the participants are allowed to kick and punch at full force with a few areas where you are not allowed to hit. The biggest handicap in this style is you cannot punch the face area and the groin area is also a prohibited target.
I think both solutions are good and all the budo minded karate practitioners should, at least, try them to enrich their kumite experience. You can learn how it feels to hit your opponent with full force and to receive the attacks on your body. This experience will most likely cure the problem of being too far with your attacking and counter techniques. Even if the experience does not cure the problem, the practitioners will know for sure your techniques did not reach or were off the target.
I also recommend that the practitioners practice how to punch or kick in shorter distances than the optimal one, closer than an arm length. Before you apply it in your kumite practice, you should use a makiwara and better yet, a heavy punching bag that can swing. You need to learn how to generate power while your arm or leg is still bent. You also need to become comfortable in fighting at a close distance.
I also recommend that you study the critical points, kyusho and remember them. Then, try to focus on aiming at those specific spots instead of general jodan or chudan area during Kumite practice. As I mentioned above, get used to fighting at a very close distance from the opponent. In that situation, you must learn the effective jamming (blocking at close distance) techniques, the joint locks, choking and take down techniques to complete the effective counter attacks in a short or close distance.
I do not deny the benefits of sport karate. I am sure it excites many of the young practitioners to compete and win in tournaments. In fact, most of the dojo need tournaments for their financial well being. If your dojo does not participate in any tournaments, most likely you cannot expect too many children and young students to join your dojo. As many dojo depend on the income from the youth membership, that would be financially a disaster.
Though it is not impossible, it is quite difficult to teach both tournament rules based sport karate and the killing techniques based budo karate in the same dojo. The focus and the concept of the techniques will be so different between the objective of scoring a point without harming the opponent and that of harming or even killing the enemy.
Even though the practitioners themselves can decide on pursuing the martial art way of Karate, it will be very challenging to practice this without an instructor who teaches this method. One needs to learn the kyusho points and learn the techniques to attack those particular points. Instead of using only the seiken (正拳, regular) fist, they need to learn how to jab or pluck with their fingers and to use more open hand techniques such as teisho (底掌, palm heel), shuto (手刀, knife hand), haito (背刀, ridge hand), etc. In addition, you need to learn and practice short distance fighting using the elbows and the knees. You may even want to learn the throwing or take down techniques as well as the pinning or ground techniques found in judo and aikido. None of these techniques are used in tournaments. In fact, some of them are considered as strictly prohibited and considered as a foul or penalty point.
As expected, the sport karate will become more main stream, naturally the instructors will focus on the sport karate techniques and ignore the martial art way. This means, I am afraid, there will be even fewer budo karateka in the future. However, I am not totally discouraged or have not given up hope that there will always be, even in a small number, some budo karate sensei. I believe this because there will always a few who have discovered the greatness and benefits of budo karate. That discovery will certainly help you fall in love with the karatedo that was created in Okinawa and handed down over several hundred years.
At the end, I want to mention another important topic that is also forgotten or ignored by most of the traditional karate practitioners. This is a technique of taosu gijutsu (倒す技術) which means techniques to knock down including take down. I wish to write an essay on this topic sometime in the future and will share it with you when it is completed.