A lost ancient fighting concept, “Suemono ni suru” 忘却された秘伝「据え物にする」
It is well known that Okinawan karate or Te was formally introduced to mainland Japan in 1922, almost one hundred years ago by Gichin Funakoshi (below far left).
Though other Okinawan masters such as Motobu (above center) and Uechi (above far right) came to Japan during the same period, their activities did not bear fruit, mainly because they did not promote their karate in Tokyo. Funakoshi, on the other hand, migrated to Tokyo and promoted his art to the university students because he could speak standard Japanese. Thus, he is remembered as the Father of modern day karate.
Since introducing Okinawa te in the early 20th century, he made many changes such as the names of kata from the original names that made little sense to the Japanese to ones that made sense to them. He also changed some of the techniques such as de-emphasizing neko ashi dachi and created kokutsu dachi. He exchanged some of the mae geri techniques to yoko geri keage in many kata. He created or designed the karate gi and belt that we are very familiar with now. There were many other changes but today I will introduce only one. If you are interested in other changes, I have already written a few essays on this subject that can be found in my books. One of the chapters is titled, “New Techniques by Funakoshi?” in Shotokan Mysteries.
OK enough of the introduction. Today I want to bring up one karate concept, a very important one as well, that is almost forgotten by karate practitioners. The concept is aite wo suemono ni suru (相手を据え物にする). Let me explain. The first word “aite wo” means your opponent. The second one is the key word, “suemono”. One of the most popular meaning of this word is used in Iaido. It is a roll of straw that is used for a cutting exercise with a sword to check its cutting ability (photo right). The original use of this word came from the time of the samurai. It meant a dead body or a living criminal sentenced to death, instead of a straw roll. The suemon was cut by the samurai to check the cutting ability of their swords when they executed the criminal (photo below). You can see, the body is tied down firmly so that it would not move when it is being cut. This is the key point to help you understand the concept. The last word of the concept, “ni suru” means to make or set. So, all together the sentence means, to make an opponent into a still target.
Now you understand the meaning of the Japanese sentence but I suspect the readers are not exactly sure what it means, unless you have learned about this in the past. In order to truly understand the meaning of this sentence, we need to look at a short history of karate in the past 60 years or so.
I assume most of the readers know that the original te was budo or martial art. That was what Funakoshi and other Okinawan masters brought to Japan nearly a century ago. I cannot say what the other Okinawan masters thought about introducing tournaments or shiai (試合) to karate. I can say, at least, Funakoshi was firmly against it until his death. It is true that there were many informal (not approved) shiai between the university karate clubs located in Tokyo. They did not call it shiai or tournament but koryukai (交流会), a “friendship meeting”. The formal tournament, All Japan Championship hosted by JKA had to wait till 1957, the year Funakoshi passed.
As shiai or sport karate has become so popular these days, we are so accustomed to that kumite style and you would mistakenly believe the “killing” techniques seen in the matches are the real and only effective techniques. If you were ever in a street fight in the past, you are well aware the real situation is far different from the shiai kumite matches. First of all, the distance is completely different in most of the cases. There is no “Hajime” or “Yame”. You may have multiple opponents and you may not know if they have the weapons. This is why zanshin, a special mindset of full awareness, is extremely important in martial arts. In addition, the Okinawan masters knew one secret technique that is in the sentence I am sharing with you now.
It is well known that Makiwara training is considered to be one of the very important items in the training menu. Interestingly, I know that some of the Western style boxers have criticized that punching a stationary target has little worth in boxing. They say that their opponent is always moving so it is better to practice punching with a moving target. They also do not need to toughen their fists as they wear gloves. I can understand why they would say that and it would make sense when you watch how kumite matches are conducted as the competitors are moving around almost all the time.
If this is the case, why did the ancient Okinawan masters talk about suemono (fixed or tied down body)? Did the Okinawan people fight without moving? Or were the Okinawan fighters unable to move fast? I do not think so and I am sure the readers will agree with me. Some of the readers may know that the nickname of Choki Motobu was Monkey because he could climb up fences and to rooftops easily. If that is the case, we can hardly believe he could only move slowly.
Once you understand the true meaning behind this sentence, only then you will be impressed with the fantastic knowledge of the Okinawan masters. So, let me explain in detail. They knew that it was not very easy to knock down an opponent (especially another karate-ka) with one punch even though the saying of Ikken Hissatsu (one blow one kill) was used then. It is difficult simply because the opponent would be constantly moving. The effect of kicking and punching will be reduced significantly if the target moves away or closer from the spot where the attacker had assumed the opponent to be. So, they developed techniques such as deai (出会い photo right) and irimi (入り身 photo below). Those are the techniques where the defender moves in when the attacker is stepping in. In this situation, despite a high level of skill is required, the counter attack can have a great impact upon the opponent as the target is coming in.
Another technique is a tsukami (掴み grabbing) and hikiyose (引き寄せ pulling in) technique. We know what hikite is and most of the time the practitioners think it is only a movement to pull back the hand as you deliver a technique with the other hand. However, in kata many of the hikite techniques are in fact a movement of grabbing and pulling in the opponen. A good example is Tekki or Naihanchi. When you do jodan ura zuki, you are expected to grab and pull in the opponent with the other hand (photo right).
It will be much more difficult to catch an opponent who is moving back or away from you. You may need to have a skill of reaching further than the opponent would expect and some people have developed a skill to cover a much further distance than the average practitioners. This technique is called Shukuchiho (縮地法), the literal meaning is to shorten the distance method. I will not explain this technique in this essay.
Those are excellent techniques against the moving target (opponent), but the Okinawan masters came up with another brilliant idea. That is the “suemono ni suru” or stopping the opponent technique. Suemono was the fixed target such as the straw roll or a dead body. This means a technique to make your opponent stop momentarily or get into a fixed status. We all agree that it is much easier to punch or kick if the opponent is fixed in one spot. In Iaido, of course the suemono is a rolled straw and it would not move. In samurai time, the dead or living body is tied down at the wrists and the ankles, so the body would not move. In karate, certainly the opponent is completely free to move.
What is very interesting and brilliant is that this suemono technique in karate not only makes the opponent stay in one spot but also makes his mental condition as unexpected. Have you ever experienced the following situation? You were walking down a staircase and you thought you completed all the steps, but there was one more step. What had happened to you? I bet you either tripped or at least had a big shock to your leg stepping down and you almost fell down. This comes from an unsuspecting mind. This happens in a dark house at night or if you are looking at something else while you are coming down the steps.
OK you understand in general that this technique or method can bring an effective result. But, the opponents are constantly moving so you want to know how this technique is done. There are a few methods to create this situation. In fact, tsukami waza that I had mentioned earlier can keep the opponent at a constant distance. However, the opponent can see what is happening so he can also use this opportunity (constant distance) to fight against you. Therefore, the most popular method in suemono technique is metsubushi (目潰し eye jamming or blinding) which is the direct method to make the opponent close their eyes. You will typically use the open hand and use your finger tips to either stab or swipe at the eyes.
Is this technique used in kata? Of course, you can find an obvious metsubushi (blinding) technique in some kata such as Chinte in which it is done with nihon nukite (two finger spear photo above). Some techniques may not be too obvious. A good example is Enpi. You will find a metsubushi technique following jodan age zuki (photo left). After this technique you will open your punching hand then jump in to give gedan zuki. That open hand is used to blind the eyes. Here is a photo of JKA’s Naka Tatsuya sensei where he is demonstrating the eye attack technique in Enpi (photo below). After the jodan age zuki (most likely to the opponent’s chin), you will open your hand and place your hand over the opponent face with your teisho placed at the chin. Just spread your hand then you will realize that the finger tips will naturally reach the eyes. By pushing the whole hand the opponent will be easily pushed back as you jump in to execute the gedan or chudan zuki. By the way, the right forearm goes to the other side of the head looking like right forearm jodan nagashi uke (上段流し受け). That interpretation is not incorrect but it can also be a tsukami (grabbing the opponent’s lapel or gi) and hikiyose waza, simultaneously you are striking opponent’s chudan or gedan with your left fist.
Another example of not so obvious metsubushi technique is the last two moves of Bassai Sho (photo left). The large hand movement, despite being done in a slow motion, can be an eye swipe action before doing tsukami and hikiyose technique (the other hand is also doing tsukami hikiyose technique). What happens in the actual bunkai is this. When the attacker is coming with chudan oi zuki, the defender will initially do ment arm (hikiyose), he will foot sweep at the same time. By these actions (done faster than what is shown in this kata) the attacker will fall. The defender will execute the finish attack (punch or kick) either during or after the attacker falls. This final action is deleted or hidden in this kata.
Why is it done slowly? I have touched on this before and have written an essay on this interesting subject. Let me re-state the reasons briefly here. One is for a challenging technique (i.e. the first two moves of Heian Yondan). Another is for the pressing or resisting action such as tsukami waza or kakiwake (掻き分け) waza. The third reason is a throw technique (found in Heian Godan). I suspect the last two steps of Bassai Sho may belong to the third reason, but at the same time I think there is another and better reason.
A certain move is done slowly to show there are some options that are not included in the kata. I am pretty certain about this as an uke is not the final move. In other words, there must be a counter attack after an uke. Especially an advanced kata like Bassai Sho, I cannot believe the kata creator would think of a kata where the defender (kata performer) would only foot sweep the attacker then move on to next waza combination. Without debating on this particular point, that overt upper hand movement (swinging the hand in a large horizontal and circular movement) in the last two steps can be either a neck throw or an eye swipe. By this action, the attacker will lose the momentum and will have to stop the action in the middle. This makes it much easier for the defender to foot sweep as he pulls in the opponent down-ward. This makes the attacker very vulnerable to the counter attack.
Metsubushi, blinding technique is only one way to achieve suemono in the opponent. Another popular one is to hit certain tsubo (vital points) such as Adam’s apple in the throat, solar plexus, groin, etc. initially to achieve this effect. The initial attack does not need to be too strong (of course, it could cause the instant knock out too) to achieve such an effect. The timing and the accuracy are more important than the power or the strength of the hit (strike or kick). Once (but right after) the effect of suemono is achieved, you need to deliver the kime waza (final decisive blow) to finish the fight. This timing is critically important as you can easily fail if you give too much time after the initial impact as the opponent is able to see what is happening. The situation is quite different from the mentsubushi case. You will have much more time between the initial attack and the kime wasa, as the opponent is blinded by the initial attack for a second or two or even longer depending on the degree of severity of the eye attack.
If you understand this concept and like it, you may want to evaluate different techniques that could cause a suemono effect. Unfortunately, it is not too easy to deliver this in a regular kumite training. This separates between the real fighting situation and the dojo training. How to train this kind of budo technique is another interesting subject which I hope to cover in one of the essays in the future.
The true ultimate aim in karate is to keep peace and avoid a fight. However, once you choose to fight, you want and need to knock down the opponent with one devastating technique, ikken hissatsu. The ultimate aim in sport karate is totally different. There it does not matter if your technique is one punch one kill kind. My statement here is not to degrade or totally reject sport karate. It has its place and I respect it as one of the exciting sports. At the same time, I practice the budo karate which is purely based on the budo concept of real life and death fight. From this perspective, I am afraid this valuable teaching method, that of making the opponent as a fixed target, is being forgotten or becoming a lost technique. I hope this essay will bring some attention to this subject and more people will find and appreciate the old teachings.