Re-thinking of Karate Fist 握りこぶし再考
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.