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“What is dojo?” This may be a silly and too obvious question to most of the readers. Some of them may say, “Are you kidding us?” Some others may even believe that I am ridiculing them. I wish to assure them that I am quite serious about this subject. I believe it is more than what you are thinking, so I hope you will continue reading this essay.
When you hear the word of “dojo” most of you will think of a special place such as a gym in a school or a health spa. Some lucky people have a building where the practitioners gather to train and that is definitely a dojo. I am not disputing this. In fact, that definition is correct. However, I want to explain that a dojo can be more than this.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, dojo is defined as a school for training in various arts of self-defense (i.e. judo, kendo, karate, etc.); It further explains the origin and etymology of dojo as follow: it is from do (道) way or arts plus jo (場) groud.
I am afraid this explanation is not sufficient or even understandable. What do you think? Let me explain better. The first kanji, 道 means path, road or way. The second kanji, 場 means place or area. So those two kanji together it means a place where you seek a way. It sounds simple enough but it is not so easy if we ask the next question, “What is a way?” It is certainly not a direction to a certain place such as a Post office or a cafe. When we talk about a way in the world of karate-do or any other martial arts, the definition becomes pretty deep. Most of us have heard of karate-do but how many of them know the difference between simple karate and karate-do. You can know the difference only if you have learned the meaning of this “do” or what it stands for. This is the very key point. I will further explain as I feel all the karateka should know this.
First, I must say that it can mean various different ways depending on the persons if they are in martial arts, other arts or religion. However, if we say “karate-do”, the word of do must bring some new meaning. It typically add the element of budo to karate.
To find it one must excel in karate not only in the physical aspect but also in the mental and spiritual ways which may be as important if not more.
One good idea was shown by one of the principles of Funakoshi Niju kun.
Dojo nomino karate to omouna
“Karate goes beyond the dojo”
The translation here can be expanded a little though most of the readers understand what this kun means. Some may misunderstand that the meaning of this kun is limited only to the self-defense and danger outside of the dojo. Of course, it is included but his kun covers much more. He wanted to tell us that we have to apply all the virtues (that I mentioned above) and the self-discipline must be applied to our daily life.
Many people have asked me where I have my own dojo. Today I am answering the question.
My quick answer is that I do not have a karate studio or school in the city I reside which is an outskirt of Sacramento, the capital of California. I used to have such a facility when I lived in San Jose till 2014 before I moved. It was located in Japan-town and I was teaching there for nearly fifteen years. I had to move to the suburb of Sacramento in 2015. Since then I have not started a karate club.
Though I do not have a karate stuido or school, I still say I have my own dojo. This dojo follows me where-ever I am or go. In other words, I can practice karate both physically and mentally no matter where I may be. I spend 4 to 6 hours daily for the physical self-training. It happens in the morning starting around 7am and lasts till noon or 1pm depending on my condition. And my dojo in this situation is in the living room. When I walk at home or outside the house such as shops, side-roads, stairs, hallway, etc. I pay much attention to how I walk (balance, posture, safety in all aspects). Therefore, all the places where I walk are my dojo. When I drive (though not too often) I pay attention to beyond the cars around me. I am not just talking about the police cars behind me or hiding behind a tree, but more importantly (at least to me) I pay attention to my breathing and mind calmness. If I am not driving then I still pay attention to the surroundings as well as the breathing and my posturing. Thus, the car I drive or ride becomes my dojo. I wrote an essay about this and it is included in one of my books, Shotokan Transcendence. The title is Jidosha Dojo (Automobile Dojo). I also read the books, articles, etc. for my research in the area of budo almost daily. Therefore, my study room is indeed my dojo.
Now that you have found what I think of a dojo, I would like to to ask what does a dojo mean to you?
Ju no okite 「什の掟」: Kun for six to nine year old sons of samurai
As many of the readers already know that the samurai had a very strong mindset and spirit. There are many reasons why but it is true that they could be very brave because they were not afraid of dying. At the same time, they followed a high standard of discipline similar to that of modern day soldiers.
However, it was more comprehensive, meaning it dictated their on and off duty conduct or way of life. The modern day Japanese are also known for their discipline and a high standard of conduct, but these modern day Japanese claim the discipline that the samurai had is almost impossible to duplicate. How did the samurai acquire such a high degree of discipline? Of course, their parents and senior family members taught them the rules but what we must remember is that their schooling was well organized in the feudal period of Japan.
Today I am sharing a well-known (in Japan) example of a teaching at one samurai clan.
The following kun (oath or rules) are for the male children (younger than ten years old) of Aizu-han (会津藩) or samurai clan families. Aizu han was located over the area that covers the western region of what is now the current Fukushima Prefecture (福島県), a part of the Niigata Prefecture (新潟県) and a part of the Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県). Aizu-han samurai were known to be very stubborn or strong minded.
First, we must look at the history of Japan in the last half of the 19th century to appreciate the mentality or the attitude of the Aizu bushi or samurai. That particular period is called Bakumatsu (幕末) and was an extremely turbulent and exciting (for the history buffs like myself) period with many battles and wars between the shogun (将軍) and the imperial (官軍) forces. Bakumatsu refers to the final years of the Edo period when the Tokugawa Shogunate ended. Between 1853 and 1867 Japan ended sakoku (鎖国), its isolationist policy. This changed from a fuedal shogunate system to the pre-modern empire of the Meiji government. The major ideological-political divide during this period was between the pro-imperial nationalists (維新志士) and the Shogunate forces.
Although these two groups were the most visible powers, many other factions attempted to use the chaos of Bakumatsu to seize personal power. Furthermore, there were two other main driving forces for dissent: first, growing resentment on the part of the tozama daimyo (外様大名 outside lords), and second, growing anti-western sentiment following the arrival of Commodore Perry. The first related to those lords who had fought against Tokugawa forces at the Battle of Sekigahara (関ケ原合戦) in 1600 and had from that point on been permanently excluded from all powerful positions within the shogunate. The second was to be expressed in the phrase sonno joi (尊王攘夷), or “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”. The turning point of the Bakumatsu was during the Boshin War (戊辰戦争) and the Battle of Toba-Fushimi (鳥羽伏見の戦い) when the pro-shogunate forces were defeated
The Battle of Aizu (会津戦争) was fought in northern Japan in the autumn of 1868, and was a part of the Boshin War. Aizu bushi or samurai were known for their martial skills. The clan maintained, at any given time, a standing army of over 5000. It was often deployed to security operations on the northern fringes of the country, as far north as southern Sakhalin. Also, in the period immediately before, during, and after Commodoare Perry’s arrival, Aizu had a presence in security operations around Edo Bay (江戸湾). During the tenure of the 9th generation lord Matsudaira Katamori (松平容保 photo right), the clan deployed massive amounts of their troops to Kyoto, where Katamori served as Kyoto Shugoshoku (京都守護職), Kyoto Guarding Marshall. Earning the hatred of the Choshu clan (長州藩), and alienating his ally, the Satsuma clan (薩摩藩), Katamori retreated with the shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜) in 1868.
Though the Satsuma-Choshu controlled Imperial Court, following Yoshinobu’s resignation, called for the punishment of Katamori and Aizu as “enemies of the Court,” he took great pains to beg for forgiveness, finally acquiescing to calls for war later in 1868, during the Boshin War. Though the Aizu forces fought as part of the greater efforts of the Ouetsu Reppan Domei (欧越列藩同盟 European Column Alliance), they were eventually abandoned (after the loss at the Battle of Bonari Toge, 母成峠の戦い) by the forces of the former Bakufu under Otori Keisuke (大鳥圭介). Aizu, now fighting alone, had its forces besieged at Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城), the seat of the Aizu clan, in October 1868. This was the start of a month-long siege.
A detached unit from the Byakkotai (白虎隊), a teenage samurai team, is famous for having committed seppuku (切腹 hara kiri) on Mount Iimori (飯盛山), overlooking the castle. Because of the smoke from the burning castle town, which was in between them and the castle itself, they mistakenly assumed that the castle had fallen. Their story is known because of the only one among them whose suicide was unsuccessful: Iinuma Sadakichi (飯沼定吉). A remnant of Shinsengumi (新選組), a unit which Aizu had supervised while in Kyoto, was present at the battle, under the command of Saito Hajime (斎藤一). After a month of siege, Aizu officials agreed to surrender, through the mediation of their neighbor, the Yonezawa Clan (米沢藩). Soon after, Matsuraida Katamori, his son Nobunori (松平伸典), and the senior retainers came before the imperial commanders in person, and offered their unconditional surrender. The samurai group was sent away as the prisoners of war, and the Aizu clan ceased to exist.
In order to create the stubborn samurai like Aizu bushi, they established a schooling system for their sons. What did they teach?
All the male children from the ages of six to nine from the officer level samurai families were required to form a group of approximately ten children. Thus, these groups are called Ju no kumi (什の組, groups of ten children). Each group will meet daily and the oldest child became the leader. Even though they were not supervised by any adults, they met every day and recited these rules. After that, each student would report to the class if his life style on the day before was lived according to the rules. If he admitted that he violated any of the rules, the senior student would give him a penalty. The severity of the penalty depended on the degree of the violation. This program was informally initiated in 1664. The idea of the formal school, Nisshinkan was conceived in 1798 and was formally established in 1803.
The building was 109 meters wide and 218 meters long(photo right). It also had a swimming pool and an observatory. It contained between 1,000 and 1,300 students. The education started at eight o’clock and they learned 11 different volumes of Chinese classical books including Confucian Analects (論語), the Great Learning (大学), Kokyo (孝経) and the Small Learning (小学). In addition, they learned the samurai etiquette, Chinese writing and various martial arts. These male students studied there daily starting at the age of ten years old until fifteen or sixteen years old, prior to their genpuku (becoming adult) ceremony.
Ju no Okite (The rules for the children up to nine years old)
There are seven basic rules the children must follow:
*Must not disobey the elders (someone who is older than the person)
* Must bow to the elders.
* Do not lie.
* Do not be a coward.
* Do not bully the weak persons.
* Do not eat things outside the house.
* Do not speak to women outside the house.
These are the seven rules, but there is an ending sentence that is very interesting.
“These rules say no, thus you must follow without fail.”
The older children had a longer list of the samurai rules they needed to learn. The longer list will be introduced in the Part 2 of Nisshinkan Doji Kun.
I will cover the longer list in the future.
In the past I have picked out and discussed several interesting subjects from Heian Shodan. You can find them in my blog or in my books if you wish to read them. So, you would wonder if there could be another subject worthwhile to discuss from this basic kata.
Indeed, there is still an important subject that, I feel, needs our attention and maybe a better understanding. Once again, I am picking a subject that no-one else (as far as I know) has ever paid much attention to in the past. Some of the readers may not agree with what I present here but I think it is worthwhile to give you my explanation and opinion.
OK, today’s subject is the seventh movement of Heian Shodan. First, we need to agree on exactly which technique is the 7th move. Believe it or not, we need to take this process because it is almost a forgotten move. Here is one popular diagram of Heian Shodan (left) in which the first eight moves are shown. The sixth move is easy to see, as I am sure, we can all agree, it is the left side gedan barai facing shomen (the second image from far right). So, what is the next step? In the illustration it is shown as “step forward and a right side jodan age uke” (the far right image). What’s wrong with this? Were you taught this way? If you had learned Heian Shodan this way, I am sorry to tell you that you learned or were taught incorrectly. You might be shocked with this statement since this kata is taught this way in many dojo these days. In fact, I have learned recently that the JKF (Japan Karate Federation, the sport karate organization in Japan) has decided to omit this move. That decision may have influenced other major Shotokan organizations such as JKA and JKS to follow suit. A recent JKA kata manual for competition, illustration below shows this omission (photo leftt).
So, what do you think is wrong with this? A hint is that one important movement is missing. If you are from the old school, you can quickly point out, “Oh the next move is left hand jodan shuto age uke.” Yes, this is the answer I was looking for. I want to share how this kata was taught to me over 50 years ago. Here is a page from one of the Best Karate books (by Masatoshi Nakayama ). In it Osaka sensei is performing the first seven steps of Heian Shodan (photo right). See the sequence is this photo. The key move is numbered as 7a. When I learned this kata long time ago, we were taught kaishu age uke as a transitional move. We are to execute kaishu age uke during the stepping forward motion with your right foot.
In later editions of the same Best Karate Books (Vol. 5) the designation 7A and 7B were eliminated and were combined into the one movement of 7. In the photo below, you will find that this move is not mentioned and is shown only as a transitional move. The term of hidari jodan age uke is left out.
But we need to look even further into the history of this kata. Here are the photos from Master Funakoshi’s Karatedo Kyohan (空手道教範). The photo below left is from the Japanese version (1936 edition) and the English version (photo below right) is from an edition translated by Harumi Suzuki Johnson (2005 edition).
You can clearly see that Funakoshi put this 7th move as an independent move. He also explained on the page that this move is a combination move of jodan block from gedan block (6th move). He did not say it was a preparation move for right age uke or this should be treated as a transitional move.
OK it may look like I am paying too much attention to this point, but I do not think I am. I am doing this because I consider it an extremely important point for the readers to know. I feel I needed to mention this before we go on to the main point that I will discuss below.
Let’s go back to the main point of this left side kaishu (open hand) age uke technique. You should do this technique without changing the stance, left side zenkutsu dachi. What is most important, however, is that you execute this technique by moving your left arm alone. When you think of this technique in depth, wouldn’t you agree this is not the standard way to do jodan age uke? When you were a white belt, I assume, you would have learned how to do jodan age uke in the way that is shown in the photo sequence shown below. Though it is probably unnecessary to describe the process of this technique as it is almost too obvious. However, I will describe the details of this technique later. This single arm movement of jodan age-uke is the very point of the subject of this essay.
Have you asked your sensei, why we need to do this? If you did, then what did your sensei tell you? He probably told you that pulling the left arm is called hikite which, by pulling it back, gives speed and power to the rising block, jodan age uke. The details of age uke technique are shown blow in the photo sequence (demonstrated by Hidetaka Nishiyama). Since you were only a white belt or a beginner, I am sure you convinced yourself that you understood this explanation. You would say, “Yes, hikite is important as we use this in almost all the techniques such as gyaku zuki, soto uke, uchi uke, gedan barai, and many other.” This understanding is ok for white belts and beginners. However, this is not an acceptable explanation for the advanced practitioners. This is why I am writing this essay. Are you surprised?
Before we go into the in-depth explanation of this move, let me ask you one key question. Did your sensei explain the bunkai for this (the seventh) move? In most of the dojo I am sure the instructors typically skip bunkai for the white belts. I think that is a wise choice as I also believe that the white belts should not worry about bunkai at their level. Despite that, if your sensei bothered to explain, he probably described the meaning as follow: the sixth move, gedan barai, means a down-block to either the opponent’s right mae geri (left side of the photo) or right chudan oizuki. The seventh move starts with a left jodan block (with a shuto or open hand) to the opponent’s right jodan oizuki (right side of the photo, the demonstration here is done with a closed fist) or his left jodan oizuki. Then grab the opponent’s wrist with your left hand and step forward to deliver a counter attack. One popular bunkai shows an elbow joint attack (illustration right). Frankly I must point out that the illustration I found in the public domain is very unrealistic. It assumes the opponent who performed a right jodan gyaku zuki would step back so that the defender (person on the left) can step forward to give an elbow joint attack. Would you not agree that this is very unrealistic? The natural reaction of the attacker would be to stay where he is and immediately strike with his left fist while he tries to pull his right wrist back. Why would he step back? It does not make any sense. The second unrealistic move is an elbow joint attack itself. Even if we assume, no matter how unrealistic it may be, the opponent stepped back, why would the defender want to execute a not so effective counter attack? It certainly does not look like a good choice. I will present a much better bunkai idea later.
If you are an advanced (brown belt and above) practitioner you need to know the bunkai, so I am pretty sure you have studied this or seen this in the video demonstration published by a certain major Japanese Shotokan karate organization. Am I saying that those bunkai ideas mentioned earlier are wrong? No, for the white belt students they are acceptable ideas. What I am saying is that different bunkai ideas are much more appropriate and realistic, especially for the advanced practitioners. Though the bunkai idea is not the core of this discussion, the application of this technique is. If you agree that the 7th or 7a move, a shuto jodan age uke, is considered as a legitimate blocking technique, then why did we learn the other method of age uke using both arms (photo left)? Is this 7a move, a non-crossing method of age uke, an exception? This is something all the advanced practitioners should ask and find the answer. Here is, indeed, a hidden teaching which has been forgotten or ignored by most of the instructors these days.
For the white belt students we teach techniques using both arms as it is easier to perform the technique correctly as well as the body motion resulting in sufficient power. If you teach them how to do those techniques using a single arm, their techniques will be inaccurate and done with much less power. Therefore, the white belts should not be taught the real meaning of this motion. As we advance in the karate skills, we must be able to execute almost all the arm techniques singularly. Of course, there are some exceptions that require both arms, morote waza (諸手技) of various types including hikite (引手), kakiwake (掻き分け), kosa uke (交差受け) or kosa uchi (交差打ち), etc. In other words, as an advanced practitioner we need to be able to execute our arm techniques effectively using only one arm. This means the management of one arm should be totally independent and not to be affected by the other arm as well as the legs unless it is working in coordination with them.
Therefore, I regard this step as a full independent move and not a transitional one or a part of the next step. This single arm technique is not an exception but rather an introduction to an advanced technique. So, I suggest to the advanced practitioners to make a full technique with this move, instead of executing it only as a preparation or a transitional move.
I want to bring up another important subject that is not known by many practitioners. I have mentioned this in another essay in the past. I need to mention it again here because it is the very essence of the technique that is often misunderstood or even unknown for many practitioners.
The subject I am referring to here is the relationship between the techniques and their names. This may seem like a minor subject but it isn’t. We must understand the history of Okinawan karate or Te or Tei (手) to know the reasons. Until the 20th century, the techniques did not have names. This may be extremely difficult to believe for most of the practitioners these days. It was not because the Okinawan masters were illiterate or uneducated. It was certainly because of some other reasons.
First, they did not want to put one name to each technique. If you are a beginner you may have difficulty in understanding this statement. Allow me to explain it further with some facts. Let’s take this technique of jodan age uke. This technique can, of course, be a jodan level block but at the same time, the same technique or arm movement can be used for attacking techniques such as kentsui uchi going upward or jowan uchi, a forearm strike. Even though the arm movement is different, the final form of a jodan mawashi uchi (roundhouse punch) would look like the form of jodan age uke. Thus, they must have known that tagging the names to the techniques would only cause confusion.
Another fact is that before the 20th century, one master typically would have only one or two students. In other words, each sensei used to teach karate in a one to one basis. In a face to face environment, a master would only show how to do the techniques.
In addition, the Japanese culture is we prefer to teach by demonstrations. The verbal teaching was and still is not considered as the best method. So, an Okinawan sensei most likely did not explain much and definitely he did not consider tagging names to techniques at all. For example, to explain the seventh move of Heian Shodan, he would tell the student, “OK bring your right arm this way and do this, etc.”, “Yes, in this case, you will block the opponent, etc.”, “But if he is here, then you will not block but rather strike the opponent under the chin, etc.”, and so on.
By labeling a certain technique as jodan age uke, the practitioners tend to assume that such a technique is used only for blocking purposes. This is exactly what has happened with the seventh move of Heian Shodan. As the technique was labelled as jodan shuto age uke so you assumed the bunkai would have to look like the photo on the right. That is acceptable as just one of the options. However, I wish to suggest that it would make better sense, for the 7th move, if we use the left shuto to strike in the opponent’s neck (photo right).
In the 8th or 9th move, you would strike in the opponent’s neck or the side of the head (photo left). Isn’t this application more realistic and effective than an elbow joint attack?
You may agree with my ideas for bunkai up to now. Then, let me ask you the following question. Why did the creator of this kata, Anko Itosu (糸洲安恒), put in four jodan age ukes (the first one is in shuto hand)? There are at least two answers.
The first answer is Master Itosu thought this technique (currently called jodan age uke) is a very important technique and it should be practiced in a sequence of four times. This can be said for the chudan oizuki in the latter half of this technique (done three times in a row) as well as the chudan shuto uke at the end of this kata. The second answer to the question above is that Master Itosu wanted to show us that there are many different applications using this technique. It can be used as a block using a shuto hand or a fist, a forearm strike, or an elbow joint attack, or even a jodan mawashi uchi (photo right). This idea supports my earlier statement that the Okinawan masters prior to the 20th century did not want to tag a name to a certain technique.
I want to mention another interesting hidden fact of Heian Shodan kata. Many people notice a curious point of the tate kentsui uchi (vertical hammer fist, photo below) that is found in the 4th move.
Many question if this technique could be an anomaly in the seemingly symmetrical kata. We wonder why Itosu didn’t put the same technique going to the left side. Instead, they should have noticed that the right fist is being used as a counter attack right after gedan barai. Yes, this is the same concept you find in the 6th and 7th (or 7a) move, gedan barai and jodan shuto uchi (I prefer to call it this rather than age uke). The 4th move was done with the right arm and the transitional move to the 7th (or 7a) move was done with the left arm. Though it may not look symmetrical in its enbusen, as far as the concept of the techniques now we can see it was planned symmetrical or at least well balanced on using this unique technique on both sides. Itosu hid (most likely intentionally) this advanced technique in the kata that is considered as an “easy” kata. I hope you are happy to find the answer to this puzzle.
- 1. The transitional jodan shuto uke which I believe to be the 7th (or 7a move) of Heian Shodan, is the advanced form of age uke and should be a single arm technique. This teaches the advanced students to perform the arm techniques of uke as well as uchi in single arm movement.
- Often, the names of the techniques do not really mean the true applications. Do not let the names influence you incorrectly in bunkai.
- Many of the bunkai ideas spread around the world are very unrealistic. The advanced students should not accept only one or two ideas. I ask them to spend more energy in their effort to figure out the applications that are more realistic and usable in a real fight. If the techniques do not work in a real fight then what is the kata worth?
Heian Shodan is the very first kata for most of the Shotokan practitioners and age uke is one of the first techniques those beginners to learn. Though these matters are so “elementary” and almost matter of of-course, we must pay closer attention to those subjects as we advance. In doing so, we will discover some new meaning and a new horizon of the karate that will take us to a higher level of understanding of this martial art. I look forward to hearing what the readers think about this subject that was discussed in this essay.
First of all, we should define what rasen (螺旋) or spiral is. In Dictionary.com, spiral is defined as: In Geometry, a plane curve generated by a point moving around a fixed point while constantly receding from or approaching it. This can be found in the natural world such as some shells, plants, bugs and even animals.
In this essay, I wish to share one secret technique of Asai ryu karate with the readers. The fist is called rasen ken (螺旋拳 spiral fist) or in-yo no ken (陰陽の拳 yin yang fist). This fist is being taught in Taiwan among the White Crane kung fu practitioners, but I am not sure if it is being taught in Okinawa. Regardless, I am afraid it is almost forgotten in the traditional karate styles.
Rasen ken or in-yo no ken is consisted of two different styles of a fist. In other words, it has yin-fist and Yo-fist. Yin or In (陰) means moon, shadow or negative. Yo (陽) means sun, bright or positive. With this definition, I am sure the readers will have very little idea what this technique is all about.
This technique is one of the furiken (振り拳) or whip fist techniques. Most of the readers are familiar with uraken (裏拳 photo below left). This technique can be a furiken if it is used with a large and circular arm motion. There is another furiken technique that you are probably familiar, mawashi uchi (photo below right). In short, a furiken technique is defined as a fist whipping technique with a large and circular arm motion. The arm motion can be horizontal but it can be also diagonal or even vertical. The angles and the directions do not matter.
The important thing is that your arm will swing starting from the shoulder (along with the twisting of the shoulders and the total upper body in many cases).
Furiken techniques, unfortunately are not too popular among the traditional karate styles due to the immense popularity of sport karate. Maybe I do not need to explain as it is very obvious. Most of the furiken techniques will not be able to gain a point in tournament kumite thus they are being ignored or forgotten. On the other hand, these techniques are considered to be one of the key techniques in budo karate including Asai ryu karate.
I assume that now you have a general idea of what furiken techniques are. OK then, let me explain what rasen ken is and how it is used.
Before we go into the explanation, I need to mention something. I needed some photos of a fist demonstrating the technique for this essay. I looked for the appropriate photos, however, unfortunately, I could not find any photos of this nature except one in the public domain. As a result, the photos of the close-up view of a fist used in this essay are the images of my fist.
Yo (sun) fist or Yo-ken (陽拳):
OK, as I have explained earlier there are two separate fists and let us start with Yo ken (sun or positive fist). Look at the two photos shown below. As you can see, yo or yang fist looks very similar to ippon ken. The photo on the left shows the palm side and the one on the right is from the knuckle side of the same fist.
It is difficult to see the spiral shape in the fist form by looking at these photos. I suggest that you will form one with your own hand. If you have the fingers lined up correctly, you can see that the second joints of the fingers (but excluding the thumb) are lined up in a beautiful spiral shape. Thought it is important to form your fist this way, forming itself is not the ultimate objective of this fist. Just remember that this form is only a bi-product.
The key point of this fist is that you need to tighten the little finger most securely against the palm, then tighten the other three fingers naturally. The third joint of the index finger will not be bent and you will form an ippon ken. Another key point is the base of the thumb should be pressed against the finger-tips of the middle and ring fingers.
After having rolled in the four fingers, place the thumb on top of the index finger between the first and second joints. The thumb, then presses the index finger down firmly (photo below left: note this photo is used to show the thumb and the index finger, therefore, the thumb base and the middle finger are not forming correctly). The thumb is fully extended and it will line up parallel with the base of the index finger (photo below right).
When you strike there are two methods. One way is to use the index finger ippon ken where the thumb performs as a support to the ippon ken. The other way is to use the first knuckle of the thumb (Uechi ryu practitioners should be familiar with this method). The key point for both methods is the little finger which must be tightened most firmly.
In (Moon) fist or In-ken (陰拳):
The second fist is In (moon or shadow) fist. Two photos below show the fist from the palm and the knuckle sides. To make this fist, it is important that you must start from Yo (sun) fist that was described in detail above. The key point is that you will keep the fist and you will move only the knuckles to change the fist-forms between Yo and In.
Remember that the fingers must be, in general, touching each other all through this process. In other words, do not open the hand or make any space between the fingers during the process. For the In-fist, you will squeeze the thumb tightly against the side of the index finger as seen in the photo (above left). You must tighten the index finger most firmly. Two fingers (middle and ring) are rolled in with the natural firmness but the little finger will be extended at the third joint (photo left).
From these photos I am afraid the spiral form of the fist is still not too visible. Though it is not that important about the fist form, you are welcome to make this fist with your hand if you wish to see a spiral form (provided you have the correct form).
What is important here is to know how to use this fist. With the In-fist, you can hit a target with any of the finger knuckles, however, the little finger knuckle is most frequently used in this fist. To use In-fist with the little finger knuckle, you need to swing your arm in a reverse way. If you are using your right fist, the right arm will swing clockwise starting from your left chest or shoulder. The movement will be similar to uraken uchi, except the hitting point will be at the second joint of the little finger.
Can this fist be used in a regular circular motion of mawashi uchi (counter clockwise with the right fist)? Yes, it is possible and can be done with In-fist. This fist is not common even among the kung fu styles. Luckily, I could find one photo demonstrating a Japanese Pa Gua practitioner (photo below). As you can see, he is delivering enpi uchi with his right elbow and simultaneously executing a chudan strike with his left In-fist (the opponent on the left side in karate uniform is famous Naka of JKA).
On the other hand, using Yo-fist and hitting with the index or thumb knuckle is much more common in the regular circular motion. Try these fists and see how they work then you can easily see why one way is much easier and also more practical than the other. Now you understand how to make the fists and how to use them individually. That is the first step and now you need to move on to the second step.
What you need to practice is to shift these fists smoothly. However, at least initially, I assume that your knuckles move or fist shifting may be awkward or not smooth. You have to repeat this exercise hundreds of times before it can become natural and smooth. Once, the shifting becomes smooth, it is important that you can do this very quickly. This is because these two fists are often used in the same combination.
The typical combination is as follows. Let’s assume that you are using your right fist. First, the attacking arm will move in a semi-circular movement similar to mawashi zuki in counter clockwise direction. The first impact will be either with the thumb or index knuckle (Yo-fist). Right after the first attack is completed, the arm direction will be reversed (or to clockwise) and hit with the little finger knuckle. For the second impact it must be done with In-fist. If you keep the fist in Yo-fist, it will become kentsui uchi or hammer fist. Of course, that is also an option. However, a hammer fist has a large impact area which means the impact energy will be spread over a large area which results in less impact power. Thus, you want to have a small impact point or a single knuckle. This is why you need to change your fist quickly to In-fist to stick out the little finger knuckle. The arm will swing like a windshield wiper. Between the two hits or impacts, now you can understand why the fist-form must change very quickly.
By practicing these two fist forms of Yo-fist and In-fist, your arms will move if both arms swing more than once, you may be able to swing them in the spiral and possibly vortex motion. Why not include this fist in your repertoire? Try this technique in your kumite training and see if it works for you. Good luck!
For the senior karate practitioners, the fumikomi technique must be very familiar. The readers all know that this technique is found in many of the Shotokan kata including Heian and Tekki. I could choose any of those kata but for this essay, I decided to pick Jion to discuss this subject and I will explain later why.
In Jion (ジオン or 慈恩) kata, the kuro obi practitioners know that it has one interesting sequence of techniques of fumikomi (踏み込み, stomping foot) and chudan uchi otoshi uke (打ち落し受け, drop forearm block, photo below) in the 43rd, 44th and 45th steps.
When I learned this kata more than 40 years ago, I was taught to stomp down and hit the floor as hard as possible with my foot. The bunkai for this combination was the otoshi uke to a chudan oizuki attack and simultaneously you will stomp the opponent’s front foot. Our sensei told us we should imagine that we were a big sumo wrestler when we did this technique. We were to deliver this stomp so that it would almost put our feet through the floor with the impact. I am pretty sure that this is similar to what the readers understand.
Today, I am writing this essay as I need to inform you about this teaching. You may be shocked but this teaching has been incorrect. Incorrect, maybe, is too strong a word so I should use the word “insufficient”. In other words, the standard way in which a stomping technique has been taught all around the world is only for beginners. By beginners, I am not referring to the dan rank or belt level but rather the degree of experience in this technique. What I am saying is that one needs to learn this technique as a strong stomping down on the floor with a big impact. But once again, it is only to learn the movement. Once the practitioners learn the move, they must move to the next level, a better way of delivering this technique.
In fact, you can find fumikomi in Heian Sandan (photo right), Godan, Tekki (photo below left), Jitte (below right), Jion, etc. Understanding the true delivery of this kata is too advanced for the color belt students.
If your instructor knew this technique, he might have shared this knowledge when he taught you Tekki Shodan. If he did not, he probably wanted to wait till you earned your black belt. Understanding how to deliver fumikomi correctly is indeed reserved for the dan rank practitioners.
I could have picked Jitte for this essay as we find a sequence of three fumikomi. However, I find Jion is a better kata to explain fumikomi techniques. Why is it better? It is because fumikomi is delivered with a swinging down arm technique (uchi otoshi waza, photo below left) to emphasize the down motion.
So, you must want to ask, “How do we deliver this technique in a correct way?” Though it may sound contradictory, a short answer is that we need to learn how not to stomp the floor. My statement may sound puzzling to many of the readers. You may even think that this does not seem right. Yes, I am aware of this. It sounded strange to me too when I first learned about it. Believe it or not, it is not too difficult to learn how to deliver this technique mentally. On the other hand, physically doing the technique correctly requires a lot more body management than you can imagine. OK let us go further to understand what this technique is all about.
What we need to do here is to study how this technique is practiced in the forefather of karate, kung fu. It is unfortunate that we have to do this since the deep understanding of this technique has not been taught by most of the traditional karate styles, especially in Shotokan. If you are a fan of Shaolin kung fu, you might have seen the stone block training floor in the temple that shows some dents (photo below left). Yes, these dents came from the repeated stomping by the Shaolin monks who trained there for many years (photo below right).
This technique is called shin-kyaku (震脚) which literally means vibration leg. Of course, it does not mean that the leg itself vibrates but rather it vibrates the floor or the earth like an earthquake by its stomping. This technique, shin-kyaku is found not only in Shaolin style but also in many other kung fu and Tai Chi Chuang styles. There are several different ways to deliver this technique.
One is from the natural stance you raise one leg and then stomp it down (illustration right). The illustration shows the practitioner raises his right arm and leg, in a manner that is similar to that of the technique found in Jion. The difference is the practitioner stomps his right foot next to his left and simultaneously he punches his uraken into his left palm. In Jion, you are familiar that we use kiba dachi and uchi otoshi uke (photo below right). When we compare these techniques of the two different styles, it is very interesting that the preparation mode (raising one arm and the knee up) is very similar. Also, notice how the knees are bent when the technique is completed in the kung fu method (illustration above right). The degree of his bended knee is exactly identical as when we assume kiba dachi. If this kung fu person spreads his feet apart to about twice the width of his natural stance, then he will have a perfect kiba dachi.
Another method of shin-kyaku is done from a longer stance such as zenkutsu or kibadachi and stomp with one leg. An interesting method is the stomping with the rear leg (photo right) which is rather unique. In Shotokan, fumikomi with the rear leg in zenkutsu dachi is not being taught. Even if it starts from zenkutsu dachi, a kiba dachi stance is used at the time of the stomp (Heian Godan, Jutte and Jion). This is an interesting subject but we will not go into this subject in this essay.
Whether a shin-kyaku technique is made with the front leg or the rear leg, as you become familiar with this technique you will be required not to make a stomping sound when you bring your foot down. In other words, the instructor will tell you not to deliver the power downward, but rather to erase it by squeezing the internal muscles in the low tanden area.
In one of the kung fu styles, Pa Gua, they have a technique called Chin tsui kei (沈墜勁, illustration below). As I am not familiar with this style and its technique, I will not go into the details of the technique. However, I wish to share the basic and important concept of the technique which is taught in this style. In essence you bring up the body first then bring it down to generate the power. The technique definitely uses this dropping power to deliver a strong punch (photo below left) or elbow strike (below right). This is no surprise, however this is not the main point. What they teach is that as you drop down you are not to drop all your weight down. I know this statement is not clear and can be puzzling.
Let me explain further. Towards the end of the stomp, right before your foot reaches the floor, you need to generate the upward power (by tightening your inner muscles in your lower torso) so that the impact of your foot will be nullified. Does this make sense?
In other words, you will generate the same amount of power upward by tightening your core muscles within the lower part of your body. That power within your body will work against the stomping leg. Maybe you can think this as putting a braking action to your stomping leg at the very moment of impact. It is like a car. Imagine that you are driving a car. All of a sudden, something jumped in front of your car so you have to use a quick braking action to avoid a collision. Obviously, the challenge of this technique is that you need to put this “brake” on at the last moment and be able to avoid the “collision”.
If you are a senior practitioner, you recognize that this may sound similar as to how you will make kime when you punch. Believe it or not, this technique is managed using the same concept. The difference is that this leg technique is more versatile than the arm technique. You probably have the experience of too long kime with your punch when you were still at junior level. You will be stuck in a posture or a position too long if your arm and body are tensed too long. In a kime situation, you were taught to relax right away so that you can continue to the next technique or step. In the stomping foot technique, when you deliver your weight down without a “brake” two major disadvantages will occur.
One major problem is that you will be stuck in one spot that is called itsuki (居着き) in Japanese and this condition is mostly despised in Japanese budo. We consider itsuki as the gate to defeat or death. The other possible problem is the great reaction impact to your foot at the time of stomping. This negative impact to your stomped foot may cause a serious joint (ankle and knee) problem.
By being able to do this leg braking technique, your body will become “floating” like a hovercraft or an ice skater. This means you are not stuck in one spot after the stomping technique. Rather, you are able to move around very easily in any direction. In other words, this technique enables you to remain move-able and shift-able. In this kung fu style, this condition or status is explained in an analogy; one’s head is being suspended or supported by a string and being pulled up. In other words, you become like a marionette and your body will float like a suspended doll.
Let’s go back to our fumikomi technique. I believe our technique had this similar concept. In fact, in the other Japanese martial arts this technique is called Fuminari (踏鳴). It is usually used in budo with weapons such as kenjutsu but it is also practiced in jujutsu and even sumo (shiko fumi 四股踏み), Believe it or not, it remains as one of the important high level teachings in the Japanese martial arts. It is unfortunate for the modern day karate practitioners that this technique in karate is now interpreted as only a stomping down of the leg action and that the most important concept of the nullifying action is forgotten.
Once you understand this concept and wish to experience the benefits, I suggest that you practice all the kata that have fumikomi technique such as Heian Sandan and Godan, Tekki, Jutte, Jion, etc in the new way. If you have developed strong inner muscles, this technique may not be too difficult to execute correctly. I hope you can feel the difference in your body when the fumikomi technique is done with a last minute brake. I also hope that you will discover the forgotten benefits from executing fumikomi in the higher skill level.
In western boxing there is only one way of using your hands, a fist. Of course this is because they are required to wear a pair of boxing gloves. Due to this rule, their hands are made into a fist. On the other hand, in karate we have so many different ways. Not only can we use both a fist and an open hand, but also many different parts of our hands. I am not going to list all of those different parts and uses but most of the readers (most likely the karate practitioners) know most if not all of those parts and methods.
The subject here may be a surprise to the readers. You might wonder why are we going to discuss such a simple and self-evident subject, how to make a fist. Yes, it is very true that we, the karateka, make our fist every time we train in karate. Therefore, it is almost natural for us as far as how to make our fist. I am well aware of this and despite all of this, I have been feeling a strong necessity to bring this subject to your attention.
My comment may raise your eye brow but I suspect most of the practitioners do not know how to make a fist correctly. It is not their fault as I suspect that they never learned how from their sensei who may not know nor learned how to do it themselves. I can almost hear many readers saying, “What is he talking about? How can he say we do not know how to make a fist?” I know how you feel but wait. You probably believe the way to make a fist is quite simple. Take a look at the photo shown on the left. It shows the steps to make a fist. First, we roll in all the fingers except the thumb. By placing a thumb over the index and middle finger, now we have a beautiful fist. Right? Even though the more precise way to make a fist is different (this will be shared in the later part of this essay), the general concept is correct as shown above. Well, it is very straight forward so what would be a problem?
Before I get into my explanation, I wish to share something very interesting. Here are a couple of photos of a boxer whom we all know. Yes, this is Muhammad Ali who passed away last year (2016). Take a look at his fist (photo right). It looks just like the fist we make, even though he wore boxing gloves when he fought. This is nothing unusual but the next photo (below) is the interesting one. It is interesting not because it is a comical photo of Ali (right side) who wore a bathrobe with someone else’s name on it. That someone else happens to be the guy standing in front, Sugar Ray Leonard (left side). What is important is not their faces. Take a close look at Ali’s right fist under the chin of Leonard.
Did you notice it? Did you find that Ali’s index finger is being extended rather than rolled in? Can this be a freak photo where Ali was relaxing or being sloppy? No, I can definitively tell you that it could not have been. I do not know exactly how old Ali was when he started his boxing training but I am sure he had been training for twenty or close to thirty years by then. If so, he would make his fist, unconsciously, to the way he normally did whether in the training or in a photo session. So, I conclude this is the normal way of how Ali made his fists. Interesting, isn’t it? Well, at least this photo made a strong impression to me.
Before I discuss about this interesting fist that is made by Ali, let me share another photo here (right). Obviously it came from a book. Do you know which book this is and who is the author? Some of you may be surprised. This is from Karatedo Kyohan (published in 1935 from page 20). So, you know the author, yes, Gichin Funakoshi. Look at the index finger! I wonder if Ali had read this book and seen the photo. This may sound like a joke but there is a very interesting and important point hidden here. This is another reason why I am writing this essay.
By the way, the photo shown here is from the English translated version. Here is a PDF of the original Karatedo Kyohan in Japanese so you can access this link and check page 20 yourself in case you wish to verify this.
In that book, Funakoshi is showing the readers how to make a fist with three step by step photos (left). The first two steps look almost identical to the one shown in the first page. However, the last photo shows that the index finger needs to be extended. It is missing the third photo so I will add it here (below right). The steps from photo #2 to #3 maybe confusing so this additional photo will supplement it. It is easier to roll all four fingers (little finger to index finger) first rather than roll only three (little finger to middle finger) and keeping the index finger extended, even though you can do this once you get used to it.
Have you learned this way of making a fist? Most likely you have not. As a matter of fact, when I first learned karate in 1962, I took both Shotokan and Goju ryu. The teacher at the Goju ryu dojo in Osaka showed me this method more than 50 years ago. In fact, he showed me two options of extending only one finger (index) which is more popular and a less popular option of extending two fingers (index and middle fingers). I do not know if the Goju ryu practitioners are still making their fist this way and I would like to hear from them about this. I know that this method is, as far as I know, still honored in one of the Okinawan styles, Isshin ryu. I can say this because they picked up this fist as their style logo (photo left).
So, we must assume that this manner of fist making was brought to the mainland Japan from Okinawa by Funakoshi and other Okinawan masters. It, somehow, survived at least (in Goju ryu) until the early sixties. I am not sure how long it lasted in Shotokan and this may be an interesting research project I may do in the future.
Now that we have touched on the historical background of this fist style, let us get into the meat of the subject. Why did the Okinawan masters use this fist?
When I learned how to make this fist in that Goju ryu dojo, the instructor did not tell me to roll all four or even three fingers. He told me to start from the little finger and roll one by one (photo right) but keeping the index finger extended. He also told me to squeeze the little finger the tightest, then a little less on the next finger. With the index finger, I was told to even relax that finger. You cannot squeeze the index finger because the part of the finger between the second joint and the finger-tip is extended. Try it with your hand and you will see how it feels. Unfortunately, he did not explain why I had to make my fist this way. If he did, I just do not remember it. Regardless, I practiced Goju ryu for one year and during that time I made my fist this way.
At the same time, I was attending a Shotokan dojo in Kobe. When I started my karate training, I did not know that I was not supposed to do this (training at two dojo of two different styles). After one year, my training friend found out and he advised me to stop and so I had to choose one dojo. I liked both dojo but the Shotokan dojo was closer to my house so I stayed with Shotokan. At the Shotokan dojo when they saw my fist, they (my senpai) told me that it was an old way and they told me to roll all four fingers. I do not know exactly when this happened but I think it was in my first year. I remember clearly that I wondered why it was an old way. However, in Japan the students are not supposed to ask questions so I simply said “Oss” and followed. For those few months, until I quit Goju ryu, I used two different styles of fists.
When I started my makiwara training, I really had to squeeze index and middle fingers in tightly. If you do the makiwara training, you know this well. We are supposed to hit the board with the knuckles of those fingers (illustration below). For many years I never doubted this method and continued this training. At the age of 38 I retired from tournaments. I started to search for a karate life after competition. The answer was budo karate in which you train to master the techniques that work in the street. In other words, the real fighting techniques for life and death situations.
After searching for the budo karate I found my answer in Asai ryu karate that was founded by Master Tetsuhiko Asai. He taught me many ideas that were different from what I had learned in my earlier training in the 70’s. First, you need to keep the elbow pointing downward when you complete a choku zuki (straight punch). I wrote an essay on this subject and it will be included in my fourth book, Budo Karate Paradigm Shift (which is slated to be publish in April 2017). I described in detail why the arm and elbow have to be held in that position in that essay so I will not cover it here. If you are interested in this subject, please get a copy of my book.
Another important thing I learned was that you have to be totally relaxed. I am talking about the entire body being relaxed. Asai karate is known for the whip like techniques such as the whip arm strikes (photo below) and whip leg kicks. In order to generate this type of body movement, you must learn to relax all of your muscles and your body must turn into a flexible tube, so to speak. From this main tube, two flexible branches stick out from the top area. Of course, those are your arms. Then from the bottom, two flexible branches support the whole tube. At the same time, one of these two lower branches supports the body while the other is used as a whip like kick.
This is the reason why we use a lot of open hand techniques. The open hand is naturally more relaxed than the closed fist. We also use the fist techniques for punching and striking. I learned that you need to relax your fist if you want to punch faster. In other words, you do not want to squeeze your fist when you are delivering a punch. You will make a tight fist only for a split second (the shorter the better) when the fist impacts the target. The benefit of this way of punching is not only faster but also I can keep my shoulder down. When you punch your shoulder comes up if your punching side arm, including your fist, is too tense. When I was competing my sensei used to tell me that I needed to tense my armpit more so I could keep the shoulder down when I punched. No one told me to relax my fist. I remember that I used to clench my fists during the kumite matches that resulted in a raised shoulder when I punched. What is wrong with this raised shoulder is simply your upper body motion will be detected by the opponent and also your body motion will not be smooth as you will have an up and down motion.
So, what I learned is that we need to keep our fists in a relaxed condition instead of having them tightly clenched. These relaxed fists helped me to relax my shoulders, upper body, neck area, etc. In other words, I could keep my entire body relaxed much easier. This body relaxation is needed to have an effective delivery of the Asai ryu whip-like techniques.
There are, in general, three ways to relax your fist. One is to have the thumb and the index finger somewhat tight and keep the other fingers very relaxed (though they are rolled up). The second way is the opposite of the first. In other words, you keep the little and the ring fingers sort of tight and keep the other three fingers relaxed (again they should be rolled up in a relaxed manner). The third one is to have all the fingers relaxed and they are only half way rolled. Master Asai asked me which I thought was the best way. I answered that the first option was. I knew many of the kumite competitors would choose the third option since they use the kumite mitt or fist protector so they may be used to having all their fingers relaxed. However, I had a strong feeling that the third option was the answer.
Which way do you, the reader, think was the answer? Believe it or not, it was option two or the second way. In other words, he told me that it was best to keep the little and the ring fingers tight first. At that time, I was very surprised by this answer, even though I am now fully convinced that this is the correct way. So, I asked him why? He brought out Funakoshi’s book, Karatedo Kyohan and showed me that page. He also showed me another book by Master Funakoshi, “Goshin –rentan Karate-jutsu” (護身練鍛空手術). On the cover page there is an illustration of a fist which looks like nihon nakadakaken (photo left). Asai sensei said the page from Karatedo Kyohan and also Karate-jutsu made him think about how to make a fist when he was young. Then he discovered that this method was the best way when he started to practice kobudo, especially bo and nunchaku. He practiced many other weapons such as sai, whip chain and tonfa but he told me that he had realized that the best way to hold a bo or a nunchaku is the second way from the previous paragraph. As I have practiced nunchaku and sai, I immediately agreed with him on this. It is very true that you need to hold a stick with your little finger very tightly and not to hold it too tightly with your thumb and the index finger. If you happen to practice these weapons in an extensive way, I am sure you will see what I am talking about.
He also told me that that is the correct way to hold a katana sword in Iaido (first two photos below) and a shinai (bamboo sword, last photo below) in Kendo.
In addition, he said this way of holding an instrument can be seen in golf (photo below right), tennis (photo below left) or any other sports or arts that you need to hold a stick or handle.
He explained that if you want to generate precise movements with a stick, this way of holding is a must. The movement does not need to be large. In fact, a small but accurate movement of a stick requires a relaxed thumb. Why? If you examine the functions of each finger, the answer is self-evident. Just think how you would pick up a small item like a jelly bean with your fingers (photo below). Almost all of us will use our thumb and the index finger. How about when you turn a page of a book or a magazine? Yes, the thumb and the index finger. How about when you pinch someone? Try to do this with your little and ring finger. OK I guess I do not need to answer this and to bring up other examples. Now do you agree that we need to use our thumb and our index finger to do many of the small and precise activities.
You may say, “Fine, I agree that we need to use our thumb and our index finger to do small and precise work, but then why do you say those fingers have to be relaxed when you hold a bo, a katana, etc?” An excellent question and the answer is the key to the subject we are discussing here. When you pick up a jelly bean, try tensing your thumb and your index finger before you pick one up? Then relax those two fingers instead. Which is easier to pick up a jelly bean? It is obviously when they are relaxed. So, the mechanism is the same when you handle or hold a stick or a kobudo weapon.
We must pay close attention to the evolution of our thumb which is very unique among the animals including monkeys and chimpanzees. Suzanne Kemmer of Rice University, thinks that by enabling fine motor skills the thumb promoted the development of the brain.
So, we know that our thumb plays a critical role in fine motor skills. By tensing it too much you will prohibit or prevent the full performance of hand or arm dexterity. This is why you need to have it relaxed until the moment you really need to tense it. On the other hand, tensing the little finger will not have much negative impact to the fine motor skills.
This is the exact reason why Asai sensei and I recommend that you will roll up your little finger tight and keep the thumb and the index finger somewhat relaxed for your arm technique, of course, until it makes impact.
Interestingly, this is exactly the fist that was shown in Karatedo Kyohan.
Let us look closer at how this fist (extending the index finger) would work. First, I want to ask the readers to try this fist with their hands. How do you feel with this fist? I suspect that you cannot make that part of the fist as solid as when it was fully rolled up. In other words, when there is an impact to the surface of a fist, half rolled index finger will “give” or bend slightly inward. When the finger is fully rolled, then that part of the fist is more solid and it seems better for punching. If this is the case, we must think deeper to find why the ancient Okinawan masters, including Funakoshi, believed in this type of fist. I am afraid this is one of the secrets that has been lost not only in Shotokan but, maybe, in many of the traditional karate styles in Japan.
The major reason I brought this up earlier in this essay was to de-emphasize the thumb and index finger area in the arm technique so that one can achieve optimum performance from the hand/arm region. In other words, you can achieve accurate and maximum speed movement with your arm including the hand region when your thumb and index fingers are being semi-relaxed or minimally tensed.
I also suspect Muhammad Ali knew this secret. Even though we will never know if he had held his fist in this way inside the gloves, but I have a strong feeling he did. He knew that by relaxing that area (his thumb and the index finger), he could achieve an accurate punch which he was famous for. Despite Ali being in the heavy weight division, his fighting style was known for being light and relaxed, unlike Joe Frazier and George Foreman. He himself described his style as “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. In order for him to be able to float in a relaxed manner when a strong opponent like Joe Frazier was coming to knock him down, I say keeping his fist relaxed was a must. You also notice when you watch his fighting style that he kept his hands down as he moved around. Most of the boxers would always keep their guard up but Ali would judge the distance so well he could fight with his guard down. To do this his fists had to be totally relaxed but at the same time they were ready to come up and strike right away if he found an opportunity.
Here is a video of Ali’s match where his relaxed floating style is very obvious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIi9YPA_nMg
What is more important that we must pay attention to in his saying in that he had described his punch as a “sting” of a bee. Of course, it was a comparison to a butterfly. However, he could have used something else if he wanted to describe his punch as a heavy punch or devastating punch. That was what Foreman, for instance, was known for. Ali could have used a word such as a bite of a cobra or a strike of a rhinoceros but he chose a sting of a bee. It is very interesting and at the same time it is very revealing too. He knew his punch was light and quick. His punch was not like ikken hissatsu but that was ok with him. He did not need a heavy punch as he knew how to knock opponents down leveraging perfect timing and his own unique rhythm he developed. Thus, all he needed was a light but fast, almost invisible, punch. So, I conclude that he kept his fist loose around the thumb and index finger area inside the boxing gloves as he had “accidentally” shown in that memorable photo with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Now let’s get back to the nature of that fist that could possibly be its downside. This fist is good for the movements prior to the strong impact to the Seiken (fist). Then, how about when you hit a target? If you hit a makiwara with this fist (extended index finger), you will see that you cannot hit the target evenly on two knuckles. In other words, you will have to depend more on the middle finger knuckle. As most of you know that there are two bones in our forearm; radius and ulna. Radius is thicker and longer, in fact, it acts as the major support for the hand (see the xray photo left). You can also see that the middle finger naturally is in the center and can receive the most support from the radius.
The subject of which part of the fist should be used to hit a target has been discussed by the karate practitioners in the past. It looks like it is now agreed that Shotokan and other traditional karate styles believe in using index and middle finger knuckles (illustration b). On the other hand, in Shorinji kenpo the ring and little finger side is used (illustration c). They say it is the most natural as they mostly use tateken (vertical fist photo below) and not too much of Seiken (regular horizontal fist). I think the little finger is too delicate to make the full impact. Shorinji kenpo’s punch concept seems to be somewhat different from that of Shotokan. Instead of one punch one kill, they seem to use it as a preparation before a throwing technique. Maybe someone from that style can send me more information if my understanding is correct or not. Regardless, I am a little surprised that we do not have a concept of using the two knuckles of the middle and the ring fingers. Out of all three choices, I like the last method.
Asai sensei and I discussed this and we agreed that karate masters, before it came to mainland Japan, used mainly only one knuckle, middle finger when they punched. However, they must have rarely used the flat fist as we see most of the modern day karate practitioners using. Then what did they use? I believe they used either nakadaka ken (middle finger knuckle below left) or ippon ken (index finger knuckle below right).
By the way, my fist in my kamae is almost always nakadaka ken. As a matter of fact, there are other single knuckle fist styles such as oyayubi ippon ken (thumb knuckle photo below). The use of single knuckle makes much more sense from the perspective of the budo fighting. If you have some physics discipline you know that the impact energy is reverse correlated to the impact area. In other words, the delivered energy amount decreases as the impact area increases. So, if you hit a target with the entire surface of the fist, the impact energy is much less than any of the one knuckle fists. Definitely no one can disagree, ippon ken gives a more devastating impact to the opponent.
I can see this heritage in one Okinawan style, Uechi ryu. Ippon ken techniques are commonly used in Uechi ryu. Interestingly, they use oyayubi ippon ken from the open hand and it is found in their standard kamae (his left hand photo below). The way he holds his left hand, a shotokan practitioner would misunderstand that it would be an open hand for tsukami (grabbing). This hand, in fact, is used to strike with the first knuckle of the thumb. In the same photo, this karateka is forming his right fist in index finger ippon ken. I consider this is a very budo like kamae by looking at this. I can also see that his hand technique whether left hand or right hand can cause a very devastating effect upon the opponent.
I am not going to say that this is the proof that Master Funakoshi favored ippon ken. However, I believe he did. This must be one of the reasons why he specifically showed, in his famous book, how to make the fist with the index finger half extended. Then, why did it get sort of lost or did he stop teaching this fist? I am guessing it was for two reasons.
The first reason was kumite training was adopted in his class. As many of the readers know that his original class consisted of only kata training. His students asked to include kumite and some of the students who had experienced in Kendo came up with the kihon kumite ideas. Most of his students were from various universities in Tokyo. Even though Funakoshi did not allow them to do jiyu kumite (free sparring), he felt ippon ken or nakadaka ken would be too dangerous if he encouraged it even in kihon kumite. Thus, I suspect that he recommended the students to make their fists into a flat fist for safety reasons.
The flat fist became standard since sport or shiai karate has gained such popularity in the last fifty years or so. Obviously, in jiyu kumite ippon ken would be very dangerous and it will not achieve any benefit or advantage in sport fighting. When I was competing in the 70’s we did not wear any gloves or fist protectors at all. Even though we were not allowed to hit the opponents we frequently had some light “touches”. Nose bleeds and knocked out teeth were very common occurrences. I confess that I had never thought about forming my fist into ippon ken or nakadaka ken in my competition days.
Currently, all the traditional karate styles in Japan including Shotokan use the flat fist with all the fingers excluding thumb rolled in (right side of the Illustration). However, Master Funakoshi, Father of modern day karate, is documented (by his published books) that he had taught a different type of fist with the index finger extended (left side of the illustration). This type of fist is now almost forgotten among the traditional karate practitioners but it is still being practiced among some of the Okinawan styles.
The author hypothesizes that the popularity of sport karate made Funakoshi fist inappropriate to use and eventually it was forgotten by the practitioners. The author believes this fist form enables the thumb and the index finger to be relaxed which results in faster and more accurate arm movement. He hopes the budo karateka will re-evaluate this fist forming as well as ippon ken and include them, if they haven’t yet, in their daily training.
Here are a few nice photos of Sensei Teruyuki Okazaki (ISKF ex-chairman) showing kokutsu dachi jodan shuto kamae. They are from Heian yondan.
As you know the first two steps of Heian yondan are done slowly. On the other hand, the similar moves in Kanku dai are done very quickly.
The big question here is “Why are they done very slowly in Heian Yondan?” In fact, you will see many techniques in kata are purposely done slowly. They are done slowly for many different reasons. Have you ever thought about the reason why the first two moves of Heian Yondan are done slowly?
I consider this is a very unique and interesting case. The explanation I present here is my own idea so I could be wrong. However, I am pretty confident that I am not.
First you need to look at the source. This kata came from Shurite (Shorin ryu) Pinan. Earlier today (January 2017) I shared a video of Pinan Yondan performed by the Shorin ryu (Shidokan) practitioners in Okinawa. I shared it to show that those first two steps in the original kata are supposed to be performed in a quick motion.
For your information here is the link to Shidokan Pinan Yondan:
Here is how this kata is performed by Shito ryu.
As you can see they also perform the first two movements in a quick motion. Doesn’t this make you wonder? We need to think why Shotokan is the only ryuha (style) that does these two steps slowly.
You also notice that the stance by Shorin ryu and Shito ryu for those two steps is in neko ashi dachi. It is a historical fact that Master Funakoshi invented kokutsu dachi and he replaced neko ashi dachi in many kata including all of Heian kata. He also made other changes such as changing mae geri to yoko geri in Heian kata (nidan and yondan) but we will not go into that subject. I wrote about that in depth in one of my books, Shotokan Mysteries. If you are interested in this, please read Chapter One (New Techniques by Funakoshi) of this book. However, this change from neko ashi dachi to kokutsu dachi caused a great impact to some kata, namely Kanku dai.
As many of the readers know that Kanku dai (Kusanku) was Funakoshi’s favorite kata. When he taught this kata to his students, the brown belts and probably shodan practitioners, he noticed that it was difficult for them to do the fast moves of the 3rd and 4th steps, left and right jodan shuto uke in kokutsu dachi.
If the stance is neko ashi dachi, it is much easier to coordinate the stance with shuto movement including turning quickly. However, a longer stance of kokutsu dachi makes it much more challenging to get in the good stance and to execute the upper body motion (jodan shuto uke) simultaneously. Especially, if you wish to execute two sides with a 180 degrees turn in a hurry.
So, that was Funakoshi’s concern with his students. I believe he found a solution in Heian yondan. He made the first two moves slow so that the practitioners will learn how to coordinate the lower body motion (kokutsu dachi, photo below left) and the upper body motion (jodan shuto uke, photo below right, sensei Kase) in a simultaneous motion.
It is easy to say to do these moves in synchronicity but in fact what happens with many of the intermediate practitioners (6th kyu all the way up to shodan level), they will first make a kokutsu dachi and the upper body technique, jodan shuto uke, will follow. In other words, those two areas (lower body and upper body) motions are not coordinated or synchronized. Is this the way you do Heian yondan? If you do, then what is wrong with that? It is easy to explain. As the foundation, the stance is already formed, the upper body motion will be done separately thus it will lack the speed and power. This is the same principle as gyaku zuki executed in a still stance (no matter how much of hip rotation you may add) you cannot generate as much speed and power in its punch as the moving techniques of oizuki.
As Funakoshi sensei found that it was difficult for his students to execute these moves quickly, he intentionally slowed the speed of those two steps. In this way, the students could practice the coordination much easier. Unfortunately, as the incorrect moves (upper and lower bodies moving separately) have become so popular and common, it seems to have been accepted lately. Sadly, it also has become the “correct” way by many dojo and organizations. I hope that is not the case in your dojo. This may seem like a minor error or deviation but you will pay for it when you begin to practice Kanku dai.
The image below is a sequence shots of correct way of doing the very first step of Heian Yondan demonstrated by Yoshiharu Osaka. When he completes his kokutsu dachi that is exactly when he completes his arms’ movement.
For the second move, initially your hands drop down in a semi-circular way, before your feet and body begins to turn. In other words, you will remain in left kokutsu keeping your weight on your right leg when the arms make the first half of the semi-circular motion. Only when the hands pass the center of gravity line and begin to rise again, your weight will start to shift to your left leg. Remember that your weight will transfer gradually as the hands rise slowly to jodan shuto position. By doing it this way, the upper and lower body move simultaneously and are completed at the same moment.
Why not try this way and see how challenging it is to do it correctly. Once you master this with Heian yondan, I guarantee that you will be able to do the first two quick moves in Kanku dai much faster, and most importantly, you can do them with much better balance and a more stable kokutsu dachi.
Let’s look at the literal meaning of this word. In fact, this word can be broken into two separate kanji, 夫婦. This is a standard word for a married couple. OK now you understand meoto-de means a married couple hands. Does it make sense? Maybe some readers can figure this out. You will understand better if I explain the concept of fufu as we understand it in Japan.
In Japan, we consider a married couple as a team. They are equal but have different functions or roles. This statement may create some negative reaction in the USA where a husband and a wife are considered equal and the same in their functions. In Japan, a wife is expected to support her husband as he is considered to be the head of the family. Since this is not a sociology term paper, we will not discuss whether the Japanese concept I present here is correct or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. I ask the readers not to pass the judgement of the cultural concept regarding married couples in Japan. Instead, the readers are asked to understand the meaning of it whether they agree or disagree, so they can understand the karate concept of meoto-de.
So it does not means the hands of a husband and wife. We all have two hands (or arms) and we consider the front hand or arm as the stronger or aggressive one or a husband hand. On the other hand (no pan intended), the rear hand or arm’s function is mainly to support the front one. In other words, two hands have to work as a team or we are to use them in a consorted way instead of using them separately. Now, this is the most important part. You may say, “Oh I know this, isn’t it the same as morote waza?” My answer is yes and no. Let me explain.
Moro means both and waza means technique, therefore, Morote waza means a technique in which you use both of your hands. However, it does not define the functions or roles of the front hand and the rear hand. Of course, if you happen to stand in kibadachi or heido dachi, etc. facing to the opponent, naturally there may be no front or rear. In that case, the technique can be called morote waza. Though it is possible, the opponent and you are, naturally, not continuously standing still during a fight. Therefore, most likely one side of your body will be closer to the opponent and that side hand is considered front hand if it is used. In short, morote waza is a technique of using both hands and meoto-de is a concept of a certain kind of morote waza where one (most likely the front) hand is used as an attack and the other (normally rear) hand is used for support or uke.
Sometimes, the roles of the hands can be switched but most of the time the front hand is used for attack or counter attack. The rear hand is used for a defensive move or uke. With this explanation, I expect many people would object to my statement. You would say, in kata we find many techniques are done with a single hand and mostly with the front hand. Some other would point out that in most of the kihon kumite we learn to use the front hand to block, uke and do the counter attack such as gyaku zuki with the rear hand. I am well aware of this. This is exactly why I have picked up this karate concept and am spending my time to explain it.
The following key points are being de-emphasized lately.
1) It is recommended to use both hands at the same time. In other words, morote waza should be preferred to the individual use of two hands. Why? I have written an essay about kumite tempo. I explained the individual use of the hands such as age uke first with your front hand then a gyaku zuki using the rear hand which is the slowest tempo (not speed, however) in kumite tempo. There are other techniques that are much faster and morote waza enables the faster tempo. It is definitely faster if you counter punch at the same time you block.
Believe it or not, there are many morote waza in our kata including all Heian kata. Unfortunately, the correct bunkai for those morote waza are not being taught in many dojo. Thus, many people do not know, for instance, shuto uke in Heian shodan is a morote waza and also a meoto-de waza. There are many other misunderstanding such as the first move of Heian nidan and yondan. Cross block or kosa uke in Heian sandan is visibly a morote waza. There are also a few morote waza in Heian godan and they should be used as meoto-de. A good example is the seventh move, chudan uchi uke with the rear hand held at the forearm of the front hand. I will explain further about these morote waza in the next section.
2) Another forgotten concept is that the front hand should be used for attack or counter attack. Most of the readers may say, “I do not agree that this concept is being forgotten. We use the front hand in many of our attacks such as oizuki.” You are absolutely correct, but I would like you to think about counter attacks. Then you may ask, “Ok, counter attacks with the front hand is different. First of all, how can you do a gyaku zuki with your front hand?” This is a good question but I am not suggesting to do gyaku zuki with your front hand. We can find a typical fufute in Heian nidan. It is right shuto nukite with left hand osae uke (photo above). This is an excellent example and everyone agrees that this shows the meoto-de concept. At the same time, there are many other morote waza that should be understood as meoto-de but they are not. This is why I am warning that this concept seems to be ignored or even forgotten.
I will pick up several other morote waza and I will explain the bunkai based on the meoto-de concept.
Let’s start with Heian shodan. There is a sequence of 4 shuto uke at the end of this kata (photo below). This technique is very popular in Shotokan kata and you can find it in Heian nidan, Heian yondan, Kanku dai, etc.
In most cases this technique is done in sequence of two or four which is a mirror image of left and right. In the sequence of two shuto uke, the first one and the second one have different functions (and this is the same with the third and the fourth one). The first one is a simple shuto uke to the opponent’s chudan zuki. In the second shuto technique, it is not a uke but rather a strike. In the first shuto uke, you blocked with your left hand. As you step in a diagonal direction, you will grab the opponent’s arm or gi with your left hand then you deliver a counter shuto uchi to the opponent’s neck with your right hand.
There are many bunkai and most of them are correct. The only incorrect bunkai is the one that does not work. The advanced bunkai technique can be found even in the first shuto uke too, but it is too difficult for not only the white belt but also for the color belt practitioners. Maybe the brown belt student can start practicing the following technique. I am sure you learned that you need to cross your arm before you execute a shuto uke. In other words, your striking or uke hand is placed in the rear. You were taught that you bring back the striking hand back because you need to have the long distance that hand travels so that you will have a strong uke or strike when it is executed. That point is ok but have you asked about the other hand? In other words, the front hand in the arm cross before the execution of shuto uke? If you did, your sensei, most likely told you it is a protection of your mid-section or just a simple kamae and has no meaning. This is ok for the white belt students. However, for the advanced students that sensei must have another explanation. The rear hand that is extended forward is a tsukami, grabbing, uke. Yes, it is difficult to catch the opponent’s striking arm. However, it is very possible for the advanced students, but at the same time, it is impossible for the white belt students. This is, again, ok as we need to have different bunkai for the same technique depending on the student’s ability.
Let me pick up another meoto-de technique. You know the first move of Heian nidan is a morote waza (photo right). But most of you were not taught that this is a fufute technique. In other words, the typical bunkai I see in most of the Shotokan dojo I visit is that the left or front hand is jodan uchi uke. Then what is the purpose of the rear or right hand? I suspect you were taught that the rear hand at the forehead is only a kamae or protection of your forehead. I am not going to say this is an incorrect bunkai. This idea is possible, of course, and maybe it is ok to teach this to the beginners. However, the advanced practitioners should know the meoto-de bunkai which I believe is the original bunkai that was taught in Okinawa.
So, how does this morote waza work as meoto-de? The front hand is, in fact, an attack such as jodan urazuki or jodan uraken uchi. You may say it cannot be because the front hand movements for urazuki or uraken are quite different from uchi uke. It is true that you will move your front arm in a semi-circular movement as you do jodan uchi uke. On the other hand, to do jodan urazuki you need to move your front arm almost vertically upward. For uraken, though the forearm will move in a semi-circle but also in more vertical way rather than horizontal. You are correct that the movements are all different but the fundamental arm movement of going upward is the same and once you become a kuro obi level, the adjustment of the arm movement is not too difficult.
In addition, did you know that the fist direction of the front hand had been changed by Master Funakoshi? The front fist’s little finger side is facing to the opponent in our kata. Take a look at how this technique is done in Wado ryu (the style that span from Shotokan before Funakoshi made the changes). You will find the fist direction of the front hand is different. In other words, the back hand side of the fist is facing the opponent (photo left). This direction of the fist proves that it can be used as a jodan urazuki to the opponent’s chin.
You may accept my explanation for the front hand but you will probably ask about the rear hand. Do you really believe it is only a kamae? Does it really make sense to hold up an arm in front of your forehead? If it is only a kamae then why not at the chest as we do in shuto uke? Of course, anything is possible but I really think this explanation of “just a kamae” is inappropriate or unrealistic.
I hope you agree that it makes sense that the rear arm movement has a meaningful waza rather than a kamae. If so, then what is that technique? The answer is easy. If you look at the form of the rear arm carefully, you will know the answer. What does it look like? Yes, that is the jodan age uke form. You guessed correctly that the rear arm is used for jodan age uke. The first technique is jodan age uke and with the rear arm, you simultaneously perform a jodan urazuki or uraken uchi with your front fist.
Then, we wonder why this bunkai (photo right) is not popular or not taught more commonly. That is a good question but the answer is also simple. This bunkai is much more difficult to do. Just try it and you will see it right away. First of all, you need to step forward with your left foot instead of backward with your right foot (interestingly, this is exactly what you do in this kata). You will discover by stepping forward, naturally, that the distance from the opponent will be much closer. Therefore, you can immediately understand that this bunkai is not fit for beginners. This is exactly the reason why another bunkai was taught by most of Shotokan instructors. That bunkai is much easier but unfortunately much less realistic and effective.
You will probably agree that this bunkai is easier but you may not with being less realistic and effective. Why do I say such a negative statement? Let me explain. There are typically two common ideas for the second move (crossing the arms, photo below). One is to catch the opponent’s second punch by crossing the arms. First of all, I want to ask if you have tried to do this in a normal speed. If yes, were you successful? I want to ask if this bunkai technique is really appropriate for the 7th kyu students. But regardless, that is not the reason. Let me continue. The second idea is to give a jodan ura zuki (not the first move but with this move, very interesting). Even though I do not believe the 7th kyu students have learned how to do ura zuki but let us assume they can do this. The reason for being un or less realistic is not this either. By the way, I must point out that the bunkai on the right side of the photo below is very challenging with the uke too. Since it is an illustration image not too many people will notice but you will see this if you try it with your partner. He did jodan uchi uke with his right wrist (so far so good). Then, he must do jodan soto uke to the attacker’s gyaku zuki with the same arm. Just as the first bunkai the attacker has to be awfully slow with his second attack. In addition, the defender has to bring the arm around to catch the second punch. But this is ok too. We can assume the attacker is extremely slow and these two bunkai would work. However, I am pointing out the situation when the practitioners are at the same or the similar level instead of assuming one side is very slow. I say the counter attack with the rear arm after the block does not work effectively.
The reason for my statement is simply not what kind of counter-attack you may do with your rear arm, the attacker’s second punch is faster if the level of skill of the attacker and the defender is the same or similar. The defender’s second attack can be faster only if the defender is significantly more advanced such as kuro obi than the attacker, a 7th kyu. If you do not believe my statement, I suggest you try this in your dojo.
Now, do you agree that countering with the front hand while blocking with the rear arm at the same time is more realistic? I know some of the diligent Shotokan practitioners will object to this. They will probably say, “Yes, I agree it is faster to hit the opponent at the first move, but this technique does not fit with the fundamental Shotokan philosophy of ‘Kata starts and ends with uke, a block’. What do you say to this?” I may cause some uproar but I have to say that you were misinformed. This is a sensitive subject and I am afraid it has been sort of hidden or avoided one, thus not too many people know this.
If I explain what is involved in this statement in full, I can write another long essay so I will share only a summary of historical background. As many of you know Japan lost the last world war that ended in 1945. The occupation army prohibited all martial arts across Japan for they would foster military mind among the Japanese people (even though it was a propaganda and by far incorrect). Regardless, karate was considered one of the dangerous arts and the karate practitioners were prohibited to practice or instruct karate. Interesting side story is that US soldiers who were stationed in Okinawa during that period begged the Okinawan masters to teach them karate and they received some instructions, supposedly secretly. Anyway, in the mainland Japan it was a serious situation for professional karate instructors whose livelihood depended on teaching karate. To make a long story short, the senior instructors including master Funakoshi had to approach the GHQ (occupation army headquarters) for permission to teach karate. At that time, they had to say that karate was not a barbaric fighting arts but it was a peaceful art of self-defense. They had to say that all kata started and ended with a block and not with an aggressive first strike. I am not sure how Master Funakoshi felt that he had to tell this to the GHQ officers but one thing we know is karate received permission to re-operate its activities (practice and teach) within a few years while kendo had to wait five years. In fact, karate was the first budo that received permission.
OK, let’s go back to fufute. Here is another morote waza whose applications are commonly misunderstood (photo right). This technique is used typically at chudan level as you find in Heian godan. As the title of this technique is uke so we all assume it is a chudan uchi uke as shown in the photo. This uke itself is not a problem. What we need to pay attention to again is the rear hand. The popular explanation is the rear hand is supporting the uke. In other words, the rear hand is making the block stronger. I am sure many practitioners have believed this explanation. But does it really? Just try it and see if it does. I am not going to waste your time here. I am afraid it is like the rear arm in the first move of Heian nidan. In other words, I may sound radical but it is just a fabrication. The rear arm move must have a more significant role. Then, what is the rear arm for? Once again it is same as Heian nidan. It is used for uke while the front arm is for attack. Fufute bunkai for this technique is you will do uraken uchi to the opponent’s solar plexus (chudan level) or to his chin (jodan level) with the front fist. Simultaneously you will do osae (pressing) uke to the opponent’s chudan zuki. The important thing is the timing. You need to get in or step forward to the opponent and deliver osae uke while the opponent’s arm is still bent. You will press down at inside of the opponent’s elbow for an effective osae uke. Once the opponent’s arm is fully extended, it is too late to execute osae uke. When you think of how the block is being executed (very close in distance) then you can easily see that the front fist is used for uraken uchi which is also effective for a close distance attack. If the attacker is coming with right arm oizuki as shown in the photo above, the defender will have to execute the meoto-de with the opposite arms. In other words, you will do osae uke (with your rear left arm) with your left arm and simultaneously you will attack with uraken uchi with your right fist.
I want to add a short explanation of the first move of Bassai dai. In that move, your rear hand is open instead of fist, however, the meaning is still the same. You will do osae uke with your left palm and simultaneously uraken uchi with the front or right fist (photo right). I could be wrong but I suspect this is not the bunkai most of you have learned. Which bunkai makes better sense between more aggressive one shown here and an idea the rear hand is used only to assist the front arm block?
I can come up with many other morote waza but I will leave the work to the readers so they can try and find the new bunkai based on the meoto-de concept in their own training. Good luck and enjoy.
Many different morote waza are found in our kata and we are familiar with the techniques. On the other hand, the concept of meoto-de has not been taught among most of the Shotokan practitioners. The basic idea of fufute is to use the front arm mainly for the attack and the counter attack purposes, while the rear arm is to support the front arm by doing uke or block. As we are not taught meoto-de, we commonly see many of the bunkai in which the front hand is used as uke and many of those bunkai did not make sense. Now we know why. By understanding the basic concept of meoto-de, we can learn the new way of bunkai.
One other benefit of remembering meoto-de is that it can be a solution to the disparity of the distance and techniques between kata and kumite. In kata we find that almost all the steps are done going forward. On the other hand, we learn to step back when we learn gohon kumite, sanbon kumite and even in kihon ippon kumite. The ancient masters left their techniques in kata and they are definitely telling us to step in when you fight. If you step in the distance to your opponent becomes very close which will require a close distance fighting method. This is where meoto-de concept becomes very useful. Let us not forget this important concept, meoto-de that was left by the ancient masters.
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.
In ippon kumite which I consider one of the most important kumite training menu, there are many different tempos. You need to understand those tempos and be able to use them properly in order for you to improve your kumite.
- 2.0 tempo
The most popular one in the standard Shotokan karate is to block with one arm and counter with the other arm, the most typical technique being gyaku zuki. This combination is a 2.0 tempo kumite or a one two technique. Though it is most popular, unfortunately it is the least desirable one. It is ok to teach this to the beginners but the advanced students (brown belts and above) should stay away.
Why is it the least desirable tempo? It is obviously because it is the slowest one.
You may say, “Well, we practice this combination thousands of times and we can deliver one very quickly.” You may be correct, but what I am referring to is not the mechanical speed but rather a tempo. I hope you understand the difference between these two terms and the meanings. In other words, tempo 2.0 is structurally slower than tempo 1.5 or 1.0.
- 1.5 tempo
There are faster or more advanced tempos such as 1.5, 1.0, 0.5, 0.0, etc. The senior karateka are recommended to master these as they advance their ippon kumite skills. Mastering these tempos will help in jiyu ippon and jiyu kumite eventually as those kumite exercises have much less time to counter and such skill is needed as the opponent is continuously moving in those advanced kumite situations.
The typical example of tempo 1.5 is to use the same arm for the block and counter techniques. Such a combination will be faster structurally (once again I am not referring to speed but rather tempo) than 2.0 tempo such as jodan age uke and chudan gyaku zuki.
This is a video from one of the seminars I gave in 2016 in which I am showing a 1.5 tempo technique. In this example, it is a combination of chudan soto uke and jodan urazuki using the same arm. The key is you do not make these two different techniques of uke and kaeshi waza into two motions. By doing this combination in two distinctive moves you will defeat the whole concept of 1.5 tempo as it ended up becoming 2.0 tempo. You need to make those two techniques (uke and counter) into a one smooth motion. In other words, you do not stop after uke. You will move your arm continuously after uke into jodan ura zuki.
During the demonstration in this video I mentioned that this technique can be found in Kanku dai (jodan urazuki, photo above left). Another example may be found in Tekki kata. This kata happens to be an extremely important kata in Shotokan but yet it is often ignored or undermined (the combination found in the kata is jodan uchi uke and jodan ura zuki, photo above right). Try this combination in your next kumite training. The challenging part is if you can make an effective counter with a short jodan ura zuki which can be done if you are able to use your hips behind the technique.
- 1.0 tempo
Now, let me explain what tempo 1.0 is. A tempo of 1.0 means when the opponent’s attack comes the defender blocks and simultaneously counters. In other words, these two techniques (block and counter) are executed at the same time and the execution completes at the same time with the opponent’s attack. I believe we have such techniques in all Heian kata. Can you identify them? Some are hidden and may be difficult to identify but they are there.
The combination of this tempo is called morote waza (both arm technique) and it is more difficult to execute than the single arm techniques. You can easily see that using two different arms doing two different things at the same time is much more challenging than using one arm at a time. Doing age uke and gyaku zuki (photo above right), chudan uchi uke and chudan gyaku zuki, and other combinations are challenging but those specific techniques are not found in Heian kata. In Asai ryu karate, we have some kihon kata such as Junro Nidan to train those techniques.
At the seminar in Goiania Brazil in May 2016, we trained these techniques. Here is one of the videos showing a 1.0 combination, age uke and chudan gyaku zuki.
If you are a brown belt and above, you should use this combination in ippon kumite. You will easily see that the opponent does not have a chance to deliver a second attack nor a chance to escape (in jiyu ippon kumite).
Up to now I have explained what the 2.0, 1.5 and 1.0 tempos are. I am sure the readers understand that 2.0 is twice longer than 1.0. A tempo of 1.5 meaning fifty percent faster than 2.0 in the kumite concept (despite mathematically only 25% less). Once again, I must emphasize that these numbers are used simply to describe the speed of the tempos. So, a tempo of 1.5 is biomechanical structurally faster than 2.0, even though an actual 1.5 combination could be slower if it is purposely executed very slowly. So, I want to make sure that the readers to understand clearly that a tempo speed I am referring to is different from the popular mechanical speed.
In fact, you can train the 2.0 combinations such as age uke and gyaku zuki so that you may be able to execute them, maybe, as fast as the 1.5 combinations (block and counter with the same arm or leg). Honestly, this (practicing only 2.0 tempo and repeatedly) is what I witness in many or most of the Shotokan dojo training. I am writing this essay to bring your attention to that there are other and maybe, better options. It is up to you but why not expand the repertoire of your kumite techniques?
- 0.5 tempo
Next, I will briefly explain what 0.5 tempo is. As you can see, it is faster than tempo 1.0 which means the counter is done at the same time when opponent’s attack was completed. Thus, in 0.5 your counter is delivered before the opponent completes his attack or done in the middle of the attack.
There are many situations that 0.5 tempo is used. I will mention only a few examples to give you an idea of tempo 0.5. As you are, I assume, an experienced karateka, I am sure you can think of many others.
One is to kick mae geri as the opponent lunges forward with oi zuki. The photo above left shows a classic kumite demo of Kanazawa (ex-kancho of SKIF) giving mae geri to (then young) Kasuya (now chief instructor of WSKF) as he lunges forward with oizuki. You can do another 0.5 tempo by oizuki instead of mae geri. This technique is called de-ai (出合い) or “running in” technique.
Another example would be ude osae uke (forearm pressing block). You will need to step forward to block the opponent’s elbow area then press further to give either enpi uchi or yoko tetsui uchi almost simultaneously (illustration above right). This technique is another de-ai.
Lastly, many may not know one of the realistic bunkai for the first move of Bassai dai (photo below left, Funakoshi from his book, “Karatedo Kyohan”). Many people were taught, mistakenly, it is chudan uchi uke. Of course, it can be done that way if you wish to do a less effective bunkai. The better bunkai is either chudan or more effectively jodan uraken uchi. The photo on the right is in neko ashi dachi whereas it is kosa dachi in Bassai. Kosa dachi, typically, means the technique executed will be followed by a throw which is the bunkai case of the first move of Bassai. With this first move, you take a large step or almost jump in. This means it is a de-ai technique.
Interestingly, in Shorin ryu kata, Matsumura Passai (少林流松村パッサイ)
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oo9-d2dfkyU), they take two steps forward rather than a big jump found in Shotokan Bassai dai. I prefer the Shorin ryu approach as I consider it more realistic in a real fighting situation to quickly step in instead of to jump in. Regardless, both moves show that it is de-ai and it is a strong technique. It is typically called a sen no sen (先の先) technique but depending on the situation this can be a go no sen (後の先). As it will take too much space to explain about this here so I will have another posting in the future to explain about Sen no sen and Go no sen.
Finally, I will cover a tempo that is even faster than countering with a de-ai technique. I will attempt to explain what 0.0 tempo is. This concept, I expect, will be understood by many of the readers. However, it is extremely difficult to have the ability to execute this technique (of course, you need to train hard to attain this ability).
This “0.0 tempo” means you will execute the counter as soon as the opponent starts to attack. I must emphasize the timing is not after he started to move and this is why I underlined “as soon as” in the previous sentence. If your counter action is after, even slightly, that will be considered as 0.5 tempo. The timing here is rather critical and almost invisible. It is at the very moment when he initiates an aggressive move. The indication includes a flinch in the arm or shoulder, or shifting his center of gravity to kick, etc. So, this “counter” technique may look like you are hitting the opponent “before” he was going to attack you. In other words, the aggressive “move” by your opponent, most likely, will not be noticed or detected by a third person who is watching the match or the incident.
Even if you understand this timing, if you are a tournament kumite fighter, I suspect you will not care about this timing. Your concern is to gain a point against your opponent in a kumite match, thus the timing does not matter to you very much. Even if an opponent is not moving or initiating an attack, one can jump in and punch or kick an opponent.
So, this tempo is not critically important in tournament kumite. On the other hand, this becomes extremely important in a street fight. However, I must caution you that you must be very careful of when to use this tempo. Imagine what will happen if you hit your opponent who looks like he is just standing there, just like he is only a bystander. You will be sued by your opponent (even if he had the ill intention to hit you at that moment) for attacking him “first”. In this case, you will most likely lose in a court of law. I am sure the court proceedings will include circumstantial evidence such as the description of the scene, the preceding actions, verbal exchanges, etc. I am not a lawyer so I cannot say for sure but I think you will lose your case no matter how hard you try to explain it to the judge saying that you detected his initial move, say, a flinch.
So in a fist fight, you may have to use 0.5 tempo to “protect” yourself. But in other, more life threatening situations, knowing 0.0 tempo may save your life. How about if your opponent has a gun or a knife and he is intending to harm or kill you?
You will want to use this tempo in a situation where a guy is drawing a gun out or pulling a knife out of his pocket. In this case, even if the guy is not pointing a gun or a knife at you, you may want to immediately attack the opponent.
The very action of pulling out a gun or a knife I would consider as an action that threatens my life. Here is where a judgment factor comes into play. He may be doing this only to steal your wallet but not particularly wanting to harm you. In this case, it may be a wiser decision to give him your wallet rather than taking a chance of becoming a dead hero. On the other hand, if you know for sure that this guy is trying to kill you or harm you (you will need circumstantial evidence later), then you need to move as soon as a gun or a knife is pulled out. Your chance of survival decreases dramatically after the opponent aims the gun directly at you or having a knife only a few inches away from your body.
Or it can be a case when a guy is grabbing your clothes at the neck and cocking his arm over his head (photo right). In this case, he is clearly (visibly) threatening you. If he is only threatening then you have an option of not hitting the guy first. But if you saw or felt his intention was to punch you, then you can deliver the 0.0 technique at that moment. The distance is very close so if you wait until the opponent starts to throw a punch or a kick, that may be taking too much of a chance. Unless you are totally in control of the situation and you have full confidence in your ability to defend yourself under such a condition (not too many people do or can, however). If this case is considered as 0.0 tempo or not is a debatable point.
Some of the readers may say, “Wait! Isn’t it 0.5 tempo if you wait until the opponent grabs your lapel with his fist held up?” These readers are technically correct. Once an opponent engages in an aggressive action then your reaction will not be 0.0 tempo. This is why I say the statement by those readers is technically correct. At the same time, the reason why I did not consider that the right moment because of legal and ethical reasons.
From a legal point of view, without knowing the true intention of the opponent, if you punch this guy at this moment of just flinching his shoulder (before grabbing or raising his fist), you will lose in the court case. Since I am not a lawyer I am only guessing that this is going to be the case, at least in Japan and possibly in the US. I am interested in hearing from a reader who happens to have some legal background.
From an ethical perspective, can you justify yourself for punching this guy when he just flinched his shoulder while you are not 100% sure of his intention? Of course, you can only if you know that he intends to harm you or threatens you by seriously saying, “I will kill you”, then it may be a difference situation. In that case, you may take the chance to act as soon as he flinches his shoulder or arm. However, if the guy is this serious about harming you, he would not be standing still. In this case, deciding when is the right time to act or react is challenging and difficult.
In other words, it is difficult to determine precisely what physical action, in case of an opponent without a weapon, can be considered as an overt action to attack. Is it when the guy grabs your lapel or shoulder but not raising his fist? Or do you have to wait till he raises his fist? Or is it when he says, “I will kill you”? Isn’t it extremely difficult to define an aggressive action, even though you may “feel” his ill intention?
The summary of the 0.0 tempo.
This is the timing of “zero wait” between your action (attack or restraining technique) and the opponent’s initiation of his aggressive act. This tempo may not be considered as important in tournament kumite but in a real street fight or a life threatening situation, it can save your life.
- Minus 0.5 tempo
There is another tempo that is minus 0.5 (-0.5) but I will not go into this at this time. It involves detecting the ki and the nerve impulse of the opponents. I am afraid too many western readers would have an issue with this concept so I will not venture into this in this essay. However, sometime in the future, I will attempt to write an essay on this very interesting subject, particularly when I touch on Sen no sen and Sensen no sen (先先の先).