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This is the exact opposite of Strike First Strike Hard No Mercy. How can we learn from this famous phrase about the meaning of karate and of violence? Strap in for some Foucault and Zizek!
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish.
Zizek, Slavoj. Violence
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Karate ni sente nashi” (空手に先手なし), typically translated as, “There is no first attack in karate. ”
Date Published: 5/4/2022
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주제에 대한 기사 평가 karate ni sente nashi translation
- Author: Goju Ryu Philosopher
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What does “karate ni sente nashi” really mean?
“ He who strikes the first blow admits he has lost the argument.” – Chinese Proverb
If you study classical Okinawan or Japanese martial arts you’ve probably heard Gichin Funakoshi’s famous saying, “karate ni sente nashi.” This translates as “there is no first strike in karate.”
While Funakoshi’s statement is absolutely true, it is also commonly misunderstood. And, it is not as simple as it may sound at first blush… To many “no first strike” implies waiting for an adversary to attack and then trying to successfully counter when you are already injured or out of position from the force of your attacker’s initial blow.That’s often done in tandem training drills in the dojo, but in real life it’s ineffectual and dangerous.
You see, if practitioners take Funakoshi’s admonishment too literally they could easily get hurt in a real-life encounter by waiting until they have already been attacked before taking any action. By then it is often too late. After all, once you block the first strike another is inevitably already on its way so you are effectively behind the count before you begin.
Karateka (karate practitioners), like most martial artists, are taught to avoid seeking conflict. This convention helps practitioners of potentially lethal arts behave in a manner appropriate to interaction within polite society, something I think we’d all agree is a positive thing indeed. This mindset is so important that it goes beyond mere words and is even reflected in the training methods and physical movements of the art. For example, every kata (formal exercise) in Goju Ryu karate begins with a defensive technique.
The challenge is to make that defensive application work to your best advantage. What many don’t realize is that defensive techniques (when executed properly) are designed to be just as fight stopping as offensive ones. After all, these arts were developed before the advent of modern medicine. In those days almost any injury suffered in battle could ultimately prove fatal through infection or other collateral impact.
The ancient masters understood that if they were to only block an adversary’s attack he would continue to strike until either they did something more effective to disable him, or they were beaten into a bloody pulp, or he decided to stop of his own volition. Consequently every martial application, including the defensive ones, were designed in such a manner that they could be used to end a confrontation as quickly as possible. Despite advancements in technology, the nature of hand-to-hand fighting remains much the same today as it was in ancient times.
In order to decipher the true intent of Funakoshi’s statement we must understand three Japanese terms: (1) go no sen, (2) sen no sen, and (3) sen-sen no sen.
Go no sen means “late initiative,” blocking and riposting after an enemy has already attacked. This is the method that new practitioners are initially taught. It means to receive or block a blow and then to strike back. It is a great learning method because it breaks advanced techniques down into small movements but it is not practical on the street where you are likely to become overwhelmed by a determined aggressor. This is elementary karate, abandoned quickly once any significant level of skill has been achieved.
Sen no sen means “simultaneous initiative,” intercepting the adversary’s blow just after it begins. This is an intermediate form of karate, using quickness and power to simultaneously attack and defend, cutting off the opponent’s strike before it makes contact. This is where we begin to find street-worthy application.
Sen-sen no sen means “preemptive initiative,” cutting off a blow before it even starts. Practitioners sense that an attack will be forthcoming and then cut it short before the aggressor has the chance to transform the mental desire to attack into the physical movement necessary to execute that desire. This is the ultimate goal of martial training insofar as self-defense is concerned, advanced karate.
Sen-sen no sen, cutting off an attack before it is fully in play, looks an awful lot like a first strike yet is still a defensive movement. This is what Funakoshi really meant: striking to cut off an impending attack is okay, while instigating unwarranted violence on your own initiative is not.
If you can walk away from a confrontation you absolutely should do so. It is not only morally the right thing to do but it also allows you to avoid serious legal, psychological, and/or medical repercussions as well. Most rational people would agree that picking fights is simply a bad idea. In fact, the more dangerous you really are the less you should feel a need to prove it.
To clarify further, Funakoshi wrote, “When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help.”
Notice that he wrote, “at that time attack him” as opposed to “after he strikes launch your counterattack.” Sen-sen no sen is fully consistent with this approach.
Clearly martial artists should only engage in physical violence if there is no other choice. Sometime around 506 B.C. Sun Tzu wrote, “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue an enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”
There are many peaceful ways to settle a disagreement, any one of which is preferable to a physical confrontation. If you cannot escape from danger, however, that does not mean that you must stand around waiting to get hit before you can act in your own defense. This is especially important in multiple attacker and armed aggressor scenarios where hesitation will most likely get you mutilated or killed.
This same perspective is expressed in a famous quote from the Bible, though once again it is commonly misunderstood. A common translation of Matthew 5:39 reads, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” A more accurate translation according to many biblical scholars would be, “But I say to you, do not resist evil with evil (or in a like manner)…”
There is a huge difference between a command to not resist evil and to not resist with evil. Turning the other cheek is a metaphor for not seeking vengeance for or responding violently to insults. While very sound advice, it is not a literal requirement to stand there and let someone beat you down without offering even token resistance. Evil must be resisted; evil impulses in yourself as well as evil actions from others.
Whoever is attacking you has almost certainly assaulted someone before. The more times he or she gets away with it the more dangerous that person is likely to become. If you successfully defend yourself against an assailant you not only save your own life or well being but likely that of the criminal’s next victim as well.
While there truly is no first strike in karate, there absolutely should be proactive defense in situations that warrant it. Good and moral people ignore insults and avoid seeking revenge yet that does not mean that they should be passive and allow themselves or others to be slaughtered. If confronted with unavoidable danger it is perfectly all right to offer a vigorous response. Your intent, however, must be to stop the assault that is in progress so that you can escape to safety or otherwise remain safe until help arrives.
Your goal is to be safe, not to kill your attacker, humiliate him, or otherwise teach him a lesson. This is the ultimate meaning of karate ni sente nashi.
The Intended Meaning of Karate Ni Sente Nashi
“Karate ni sente nashi“, one of the 20 precepts of karate written by Gichin Funakoshi, is often translated literally as “there is no first attack in karate” and many people interpret it as a karateka should never launch the first attack.
In my opinion, this is definitely not what “karate ni sente nashi” means.
Based on my reading of what Gichin Funakoshi said in his book “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate“, the intended meaning of “karate ni sente nashi” is that: attacking should not be the first course of action in karate.
In this article, I would argue that it is perfectly okay to launch the first attack in a fight if it is necessary to defend yourself or to fight for a cause you believe in.
As this quote is often attributed to Gichin Funakoshi, we will have a close look at what Gichin Funakoshi said in his book and other masters’ views on this subject.
Karate ni sente nashi according to Gichin Funakoshi
In his book when talking about the second principle “karate ni sente nashi“, Gichin Funakoshi began by quoting a basic teaching of Japanese bushido that “a sword must never be recklessly drawn“.
“A sword must never be recklessly drawn” was the most important tenet of conduct in the daily life of a samurai. It was essential for the honorable man of the day to bear things to the very limit of his ability before taking action. Only after reaching the point where the situation could no longer be tolerated was the blade drawn from its scabbard. This was a basic teaching of Japanese bushido (the Way of the Warrior).
Gichin Funakoshi then went on to explain how this principle applies to karate.
In karate, the hands and feet can be as deadly as the blade of a sword. Thus, the principle that “there is no first strike in karate” is an extension of the basic samurai principle that one must avoid the reckless use of weapons. It underscores the absolute necessity of patience and forbearance.
It is clear in the above paragraph what “karate ni sente nashi” meant according to Funakoshi.
Because a karateka’s hands and feet can become deadly weapons, they must not be readily “drawn” or resorted to as the first means to resolve a conflict and should be reserved for situations when they become absolutely necessary.
Gichin Funakoshi further quoted master Anko Itosu to emphasize the point that even when one is forced to “draw the sword” or use hands and feet to achieve one’s goal, they should be used proportionately in order to avoid causing injury to others unnecessarily.
… in the event that you are accosted by a thug or challenged by an aggressive troublemaker, you should try to avoid striking a mortal blow. You must hold as an essential principle that avoidance of injury to others with your fists and feet is your first concern… … this may be likened to the practice of hitting an attacker with the back ridge of a sword rather than with the cutting edge. It is crucial to allow an opponent time to reconsider or regret his actions.
Funakoshi also made it clear that “karate ni sente nashi” does not mean that one should never launch the first attack in a fight. On the other hand, his view was that it is perfectly okay to initiate an attack if the situation warrants it.
… in a worst-case scenario, where combat is unavoidable, it is proper to take the initiative, attacking time and again until victory is achieved.
Some people argue that the principle “there is no first attack in karate” is reflected in the fact that all katas in Shotokan style start with a block.
However, this is not true because a karate technique can be used as both a block and an attack.
For example, an age uke can be used as an attack aiming at someone’s throat or a mae geri can be used as an effective way to stop a direct attack aiming at your center line.
Similarly, a gedan barai can be used as an attack while a tsuki can be used to stop an attack as well.
In summary, the essence of what Funakoshi said in the second principle “karate ni sente nashi” is that in karate, the use of physical force should not be the first course of action. One must resort to all other possible means to achieve a desirable outcome first and physical force should only be used as a last resort.
Karate ni sente nashi according to Chojun Miyagi
There is no record of Chojun Miyagi elaborating on the karate ni sente nashi principle in detail.
However, he once bemoaned the lack of emphasis on the karate ni sente nashi principle in karate training that:
… although maxims such as karate ni sente nashi … existed, in reality this type of spiritual focus was paid little if any attention – the focus was on the physical…
He also said “Do not strike others and do not allow others to strike you. The goal is peace without incident” which I think is consistent with the karate ni sente nashi principle.
One should not learn karate to strike others but when one is under attack or under imminent attack, one can use appropriate means to prevent that from happening. In such situations, pre-emptive strikes are not inconsistent with the karate ni sente nashi principle.
Karate ni sente nashi according to Motobu Choki
Despite the differences between them, Motobu Choki and Gichin Funakoshi are pretty much on the same page with regard to the intended meaning of “karate ni sente nashi“, at least based on their written records.
In his book “My Art and Skill of Karate“, Motobu Choki wrote only a short passage on “karate ni sente nashi” which conveys essentially the same message as that by Gichin Funakoshi: a karateka should avoid using force unnecessarily.
He even went on to say that when a fight is unavoidable, it is essential to strike first to dominate the enemy.
There is the expression called ‘karate ni sente nashi’ … and some people seem to frequently teach it as “you must not attack first” which I think is quite a misunderstanding… … this expression means that you should not cause harm indiscriminately, and if you are forced to, that is, when it is unavoidable, and the enemy tries to harm you, you must stand up and fight ferociously. When entering a fight, it is essential to dominate the enemy, and to dominate the enemy, you must move (attack) first. Therefore when entering a fight, you must move (attack) first. This is important to keep in mind.
How Motobu Choki perfectly demonstrated the principle of “karate ni sente nashi“
Motobu Choki was celebrating his seventy-second birthday at a restaurant when a younger and intoxicated man (some source said the man was also armed with a knife) challenged him to a fight in front of everyone.
After trying to dissuade the man unsuccessfully, Motobu Choki accepted the challenge.
As they walked out of the restaurant for the fight, Motobu Choki “without warning kicked him so hard in the hips from behind that he was thrown violently to the floor, where he lay in great pain unable to move“.
Motobu Choki clearly walked his talk in this instance.
He didn’t want to fight for no reason. He didn’t want to risk injury or hurt the young man. He was provoked and he had no choice but to enter a fight with a younger opponent who was armed.
He was older and, in a fight involving a knife, anything could happen. In short, his life and his reputation were at risk and he took the opportunity to attack first and the fight was instantly over.
While some purists may disagree, in my view, in this situation, Motobu Choki did follow the karate ni sente nashi principle to the letter.
Richard Kim’s tale and the meaning of karate ni sente nashi
Richard Kim (1919-2001), a well-respected American martial artist who was a master in several martial arts including Shorin ryu karate, Judo and Okinawan kobudo, told the following tale when he was asked about what karate ni sente nashi meant to him.
The story happened after World War II and during the Allied occupation of Japan.
A Japanese man was beaten up by a few drunken Allied servicemen. He was crying out for help but a crowd of Japanese gathering around to watch what was happening were afraid and did nothing.
Eventually, a karate sensei intervened. He took the injured man away and handed him to some locals and told them to take the man to the hospital.
He then turned to face the drunken men who began to attack him. He endured the attack but did not fight back. As the crowd gathering around them became larger, concerning for their own safety, the men eventually stopped and left.
The karate sensei bowed to the crowd and left as well.
He must have felt that he could be able to withstand the servicemen’s attack and didn’t think that his life was threatened and therefore didn’t need to fight back.
This is also a perfect demonstration of the karate ni sente nashi principle: one must avoid the use of force unless it is absolutely necessary.
Much has been debated about Gichin Funakoshi’s “karate ni sente nashi” principle and what it actually means.
In my opinion, Gichin Funakoshi stated clearly in his book that “karate ni sente nashi” meant, in karate, one should not resort to the use of one’s weapons (hands, feet and other body parts) first to resolve a conflict.
Only after all other means fail that one can resort to the use of physical force. And even in this case, force should be used appropriately to avoid unnecessary harm.
Karate ni sente nashi does not mean that one should never attack first.
When one is forced to fight, taking the initiative to strike first is not prohibited and should even be encouraged if it helps achieve victory.
To be honest, I am not sure where the confusion or controversy comes from because Gichin Funakoshi explained it quite clearly in his book.
Other posts you might be interested in:
Sophia I haven’t trained in karate for long but it has given me so much and definitely has made me a better person. After a long break, I’ve recently returned to karate and now train in Goju Ryu style with my children, starting all over again from a white belt.
Karate ni Sente Nashi: What the Masters Had to Say
Mark Tankosich is an American who has lived in Japan for close to 15 years. A former executive director of the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania, he has a master’s degree in Asian Studies and is fluent in both spoken and written Japanese. He has dan rankings in Sho-ha Shorin-ryu karate and Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Jodo. Currently, he lives in Hiroshima. Employed at the Hiroshima University of Economics, his duties include researching the history and traditions of the Japanese martial arts. Mark can be contacted via [email protected]
This enlightening article discusses what the Masters had to say on the subject of “No First Attack in Karate”. I feel it is vital that this concept is thoroughly explored and understood if karate is to be effectively applied in self-protection situations. Mark Tankosich has written what I consider to be the best article I’ve read on the subject. I am therefore extremely grateful to Mark for sharing this great article with members and visitors to this site.
All the best,
This is a slightly revised version of a paper that originally appeared in Vol. 27, No. 1 of the Hiroshima University of Economics Journal of Humanities, Social and Natural Sciences.
Karate ni Sente Nashi: What the Masters Had to Say
by Mark Tankosich
Perhaps no Japanese phrase is more familiar to karate practitioners around the world than “karate ni sente nashi.” Typically translated as, “There is no first attack in karate,” this maxim has become known primarily through the teachings of Gichin Funakoshi. The founder of Shotokan and, according to many, the “father of modern karate-do,” Funakoshi made the principle the second of his Niju Kun (“Twenty Precepts”), following only the directive to not forget that “karate begins and ends with courtesy” (Funakoshi, “Karate-do nijukajo”).
Clearly, for Funakoshi, the maxim karate ni sente nashi was of great importance. In addition to including it as one of his “Twenty Precepts,” he stated in a 1935 magazine article that he “view[s] it as [expressing] the essence of karate-do” (Funakoshi, “Karate no hanashi” 65). Nor is he alone in this view: Shoshin Nagamine, respected founder of the Matsubayashi school of Shorin-ryu karate, wrote that, “This phrase [. . .] embodies the essence of Okinawan karate” (Nagamine 13). Similarly, Masatoshi Nakayama, longtime head of the Japan Karate Association, stated that, “[. . .] it is not an exaggeration to say that it is these words that succinctly and fully express the spirit of karate-do” (Nakayama 80).
With such esteemed masters as these expressing such strong sentiments regarding the significance of the sente nashi principle, one can only assume that the principle represents a way of thinking that is — or at least should be — profoundly important for those who consider themselves to be serious practitioners of the art of karate-do. Specifying just exactly what that way of thinking is, in all of its subtleties, would perhaps be a difficult task, but obviously, at its most basic level, the maxim at least clearly proscribes the use of any “first strikes” on the part of karate-ka. Or does it?
Certainly many of today’s karate practitioners would argue that striking first is a violation of karate ni sente nashi. Iain Abernethy notes, for example, that when he published an article in some British magazines advocating the use of pre-emptive striking in certain situations:[. . .] I received a markedly increased level of correspondence. Some were very supportive of [my position] [. . .]. Of those who contacted me in the positive, many stated that their immediate peer group were wholly opposed to the idea [. . .].
The ones who responded in the negative were often VERY strong in their opposition. Their objections were essentially based on moral grounds, but a number cited “karate ni sente nashi” as if I was encouraging the breaking of an 11th commandment! (Abernethy, “Striking First?!” Emphasis in final sentence added.)
Similarly, in his book Steady Training, Antonio Bustillo notes:
I’ve heard many instructors quote the [sente nashi] slogan stating it means you must first wait for an opponent to attack and strike out before you retaliate. As verification to their testimony they use the katas as examples. “Every kata starts with a block. [. . .]” (Bustillo 247)
Yet, there are also those karate-ka who disagree with this position, who believe that the sente nashi principle does not necessarily rule out all first strikes. These practitioners typically argue that a “first attack” can also consist of something other than a physical blow and that once an opponent has engaged in such an attack the karate-ka is free to “defend” himself by striking first. Abernethy, for instance, says:
I believe that ‘karate-do ni sente nashi’ and the pre-emptive strike are in no way mutually exclusive and can exist side by side. To my mind, once an assailant has decided to attack us, the attack has begun. We are then well within our rights to use whatever methods are appropriate to ensure our safety. [. . .] If an individual is behaving in an aggressive way whilst attempting to invade our personal space then there is a strong possibility that their verbal aggression is about to escalate to the physical. This verbal assault is an attack in itself and waiting until the attack becomes physical is foolhardy in the extreme. (Abernethy, Bunkai-Jutsu 122)
Similarly, an anonymous author, after describing a hypothetical situation in which a female karate-ka dispatches three men who accosted her on the street late at night, writes:
Only when we factor in the intent of your opponents do we get a better picture of “karate ni sente nashi.” [. . .] They surrounded you at midnight. They closed mae (sic) [i.e., engagement distance]. They assumed kamae [i.e., fighting postures] even if only American streetgang type nonchalant kamae. [. . .] Their intents were probably violent for such actions as the above can hardly be interpreted as altruistic.
If you felt your life was in danger by their intent your first attack is defense. The war broke out when they stepped across the line of intent and into your personal protected space. [. . .]
When you feel the breach in peace it is time to strike. [. . .] The war has begun. The person who throws the first strike is immaterial (sic). The war began with mobilization, entrapment and perceived intent. [. . .] You would be foolish to delay until after the first physical strike is thrown at you [. . .].[. . .] The well-trained martial artist [. . .] may find certain situations [. . .] as conditions where she justifiably throws the physical first strike without breaching “karate ni sente nashi.” (Karate Ni Sente Nashi)
What the Masters Had to Say
Kohaku Iwai lists four Okinawans — all of them legendary martial artists — as “the warriors who introduced karate-jutsu to the [Japanese] mainland”: Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi and Kenwa Mabuni (Iwai 187-211). What, one wonders, did these men have to say about interpreting the karate ni sente nashi maxim? A future paper will examine Funakoshi’s thoughts; here, let us look at some of the writings of Miyagi, Motobu and Mabuni.
To the best of this author’s knowledge, there were three documents produced by Chojun Miyagi (or at least three have been made public): Goju-ryu kenpo, Ho goju donto and Karate-do gaisetsu (“Outline of Karate-do”) (1). The first two of these, written in 1932 and 1942 respectively, contain no reference to sente nashi. In Karate-do gaisetsu, Miyagi does briefly mention the sente nashi principle, but not in any way that is particularly helpful to our discussion. In the version that appears in Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, we find the following paragraph:
Folklore contends that the teaching methods of long ago focused mainly upon self-defense, with little emphasis placed upon training the mind, or cultivating the precept “karate-do ni sente nashi” (there is no first attack in karate-do). I have observed the neglect of this diligent principle, although, with the passage of time, teaching policies have gradually improved to where that imbalance has, for the most part, been corrected. My conviction is that the fist and Zen are one of the same (sic). Together, this balance cultivates intellect ahead of strength. The transmission of budo’s essential precept must be fostered. (Miyagi, “Karate-do Gaisetsu” 50) (2)
Other than in this passage, Miyagi makes no mention of the sente nashi maxim.
Choki Motobu, in his 1932 publication Watashi no karate-jutsu (“My Karate-jutsu”), expresses his thoughts on sente nashi in a way that is directly relevant to the question being asked here. In a one-paragraph section titled Karate ni sente nashi, he writes:
There is an expression, “karate ni sente nashi.” Apparently some people interpret this literally and often profess that “one must not attack first,” but I think that they are seriously mistaken. To be sure, it is certainly not the budo spirit to train for the purpose of striking others without good reason. I assume that you already understand that one’s primary purpose must be the training of mind and body. The meaning of this saying, then, is that one must not harm others for no good reason. But when a situation can’t be helped, in other words, when, even though one tries to avoid trouble, one can’t; when an enemy is serious about doing one harm, one must fiercely stand and fight. When one does fight, taking control of the enemy is crucial, and one must take that control with one’s first move. Thus, in a fight one must attack first. It is very important to remember this. (Motobu 58-59) (3)
Indeed, on at least one occasion Choki Motobu did demonstrate his willingness to strike first, if a story told to karate researcher Charles Goodin is to be believed. Goodin reports that he heard the story from Motobu’s son, Chosei, who in turn had heard it from Chozo Nakama, a former student of the elder Motobu (4). According to the account provided Goodin, Choki Motobu, in his seventies at the time, was attending a large party when a former student burst in and, waving a knife, challenged Motobu. Goodin reports:
“I can use this,” [the student] declared stabbing the knife into Motobu’s table, “I will never lose the fight.” (sic)[. . .] “I won’t fight with any weapon,” [Motobu] stated calmly. “I won’t fight with a knife.” Although he tried his best to convince the student not to fight, the student insisted. “Are you really that determined to fight me with a knife?” asked Motobu.
“I am,” proclaimed the student defiantly. “I won’t change my mind!”
“All right then,” said Motobu finally. “I will take you up on your offer, but we should not fight in the house.”
The student grabbed the knife and headed for the door. Motobu followed closely behind. Just before the student reached the door, Motobu kicked him in the back, shattering his backbone. (Goodin 12)
Assuming that the above account is accurate, whether or not the situation in which Motobu found himself can truly be called one in which physical conflict was unavoidable is, perhaps, open to debate. Motobu’s willingness to strike first, however, is clear.
Additional information regarding Motobu’s thoughts on striking first can be found in Motobu Choki sensei: Goroku (“A Collection of Sayings of Sensei Choki Motobu”) (5). There, listed as saying number nine, we find a statement that seemingly contradicts the karate ni sente nashi principle: Karate wa sente de aru (“karate is the first attack”). (Nakata 42). Given the opinion that he expresses in Watashi no karate-jutsu (see above), it seems reasonable to conclude that with these words Motobu meant to stress the importance of striking first when trouble is unavoidable.
Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of the Shito-ryu school of karate, produced a number of publications during his lifetime. Among them, and co-authored with Genwa Nakasone, was the book Kobo kenpo karate-do nyumon, about which noted karate historian Patrick McCarthy has written:
Considered his best work of all [. . .]. [. . .] this [. . .] was considered by one writer to be the real “Master Text” of karate-do. [. . .] Mabuni Kenwa won widespread recognition during that pre-war era with this book and, considering the magnitude of this work, it is surprising to hear that it has never been translated into English. (McCarthy, “Standing” 30)
In this book, in a section of Chapter 10 entitled “Correct and Incorrect Understanding of the Meaning of ‘Karate ni Sente Nashi,’” we find the following extremely relevant comments:
There is a precept “karate ni sente nashi.” Properly understood, this indicates a mental attitude of not being eager or inclined to fight. It is the teaching that just because one has trained in karate does not mean that one can rashly strike or kick others. It seems that there are two types of mistaken interpretations regarding this precept, and [I’d] like to correct them.
The first is a mistaken understanding held by some people who are not karate practitioners. Such people say, “In all fights the opportunity for victory is seized by getting the jump on your enemy; a passive attitude such as sente nashi is inconsistent with Japanese budo.” Such a view forgets the essential purpose of budo: Bu (6) takes as its ideal the stopping of the spear (7), and its aim is the maintenance of peace. Those who make such statements do not understand that the true spirit of Japanese budo means not being bellicose.
When faced with someone who disrupts the peace or who will do one harm, one is as a warrior gone to battle, and so it only stands to reason that one should get the jump on the enemy and preempt his use of violence. Such action in no way goes against the precept of sente nashi.
Second is a mistaken understanding found among some karate practitioners. It is a view that does not see sente nashi as an attitude, but rather as a literal, behavioral rule to be rigidly followed. As noted above, when absolutely necessary, when one is already facing a battle, it is an accepted truth of strategy that one should try to take sensen no sen (8) and forestall the enemy’s actions.
In conclusion, the expression karate ni sente nashi should be properly understood to mean that a person who practices karate must never take a bellicose attitude, looking to cause an incident; he or she should always have the virtues of calmness, prudence and humility in dealing with others. (Mabuni and Nakasone 82-83) (9)
Examining the writing of Chojun Miyagi reveals little regarding his interpretation of the karate ni sente nashi maxim. Our look at the thoughts of two other legendary karate pioneers, though – Choki Motobu and Kenwa Mabuni – clearly shows that they strongly believed that striking first does not necessarily violate the sente nashi principle. Indeed, both men seem to have felt that a first strike is, under certain conditions, the only reasonable course of action for a karate-ka to take. It is interesting to note that, just as is true today, when Motobu and Mabuni were writing their books (in the 1930s), there were apparently those who viewed sente nashi as being a prohibition on striking first; both masters unambiguously condemn such literal interpretations.
Given his (assuming here for the purposes of discussion, well-deserved) reputation as somewhat of a ruffian who had more than his share of fights, one might argue, perhaps, that Choki Motobu’s views on the properness of striking first should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. What of Kenwa Mabuni and his views, though? In what light should we see them? According to McCarthy, Mabuni was “a staunch advocate of the moral values established to govern the behavior of karate-do practitioners” (McCarthy, “Standing” 34). If this is true, then one could hardly “explain away” Mabuni’s expressed willingness to strike first as the view of someone not particularly concerned with whether or not karate-ka behaved in a morally-proper manner. Apparently, when Mabuni (with Nakasone) stated that, “[. . .] when one is already facing a battle, it is an accepted truth of strategy that one should try to take sensen no sen and forestall the enemy’s actions,” he did so with complete awareness of the moral issues involved.
Copyright © Mark J. Tankosich 2004
The author would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to his wife (and best friend), Yasuko Okane, and to his colleague and friend, Izumi Tanaka, for their patient Japanese language assistance. He would also like to thank leading karate researcher Joe Swift for his helpful e-mail correspondence, and martial arts author Iain Abernethy for his kind help. Any and all errors are, of course, solely the fault of the author.
1. Actually, there are apparently two versions of Karate-do gaisetsu: one written in 1934 and the other in 1936 (Kinjo 54-55). It is assumed that the 1936 version to which Kinjo refers is the one that appears in Higaonna (81-88). Also, the Goju-ryu kenpo that appears in Toguchi’s Karate no kokoro, dated August 29, 1932, and signed “Chojun,” was one presented to a Mr. Kiju Azama. The author learned from Swift of the existence of a document with the same title and date, also signed “Chojun,” but presented to a Mr. Tatsutoku Senaha (Swift, “Re: Miyagi Document”). Apparently Miyagi produced and gave out several copies of the document (Swift, “Re: Miyagi Translation”). It is assumed that the copies, however many there are, are the same in content. Finally, it is interesting to note that the title of the second piece mentioned – Ho goju donto – is, according to Higaonna (68), a line from a poem found in the so-called “Bible of Karate,” the Bubishi. Translating its meaning as “the way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness,” Higaonna identifies the expression as being the inspiration for Miyagi naming his style of karate “Goju-ryu.”
2. Whether owing to differences in translation or to differences in the 2 “original” Japanese versions, Higaonna’s account of this paragraph differs somewhat. It does not, however, provide any more information that is relevant to our discussion than does McCarthy’s version.
3. The translation presented here is this author’s. For an alternative translation, see McCarthy and McCarthy (Karate-jutsu: 96).
4. Noble was told essentially the same story by the same source (Noble 47).
5. This collection was put together by Mizuhiko Nakata, under the supervision of Kenji Marukawa. Nakata, while a martial artist, was not actually a student of Motobu’s. He writes that from the time he first formally met Motobu (around 1935) until Motobu left Tokyo to return to Okinawa (which Iwai puts at 1939), he saw Motobu at least once a week. He reports that he and Motobu would eat and (“thoroughly”) drink together while discussing karate and other things. Motobu would also actually demonstrate for him. The second person mentioned above, Kenji Marukawa, was one of Motobu’s top students. (Nakata 56-58; Iwai 200)
6. That is,”bu”, the first syllable / ideogram of budo.
7. This is a reference to the theory that the ideogram for bu is made up of the characters (hoko) and (tomeru). The latter of these, tomeru, means “to stop.” A hoko is defined by the Kokugo Dai Jiten Dictionary as a long-handled weapon used to stab or thrust at an enemy. The dictionary further states that this weapon developed into the naginata (a Japanese halberd) at the end of the Heian period (794-1185), and into the yari or spear at the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). It should be mentioned here that Shogakukan’s Shinsen Kanwa Jiten also notes other possible origins for the character “bu”, in addition to the “stop spear” one.
8. Sensen no sen is one of three kinds of sen or initiative. Go no sen and sen no sen are the other two. Kim et al. define these as follows: Go no sen is reactive or responsive initiative, sen no sen is simultaneous initiative, and sensen no sen is preemptive initiative.
9. As far as this author can tell, the passage presented here has never before appeared in English. The translation provided is this author’s.
Abernethy, Iain. Bunkai-Jutsu: The Practical Application of Karate Kata. Cockermouth, UK: NETH, 2002.
Abernethy, Iain. “Striking First?!” E-mail to the author. 20 Sept. 2002.
“Bu.” Character Explanation. Shinsen Kanwa Jiten. 5th ed. Shogakukan, 1987.
Bustillo, Antonio. Steady Training. Lincoln: Writers Club, 2001.
Funakoshi, Gichin. “Karate no hanashi.” Kaizo July 1935: 56-72.
Funakoshi, Gichin. “Karate-do nijukajo to sono kaisetsu.” Karate-do taikan. 1938. Ed. Genwa Nakasone. Ginowan, Jap.: Ryokurindo Shoten, 1991. 67-87.
“Go no sen” Tuttle Dictionary of the Martial Arts of Korea, China & Japan. Comp. Sun-Jin Kim, Daniel Kogan, Nikolaos Kontoggiannis and Hali Wong. Rutland: Tuttle, 1995.
Goodin, Charles. “Choki Motobu: Revelations from His Son, Chosei. (Pt. 2)” Dragon Times Vol. 20: 9-12.
Higaonna, Morio. The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju-ryu. 2nd ed. N.p.: Dragon, 1995.
“Hoko.” Def. 1. Kokugo Dai Jiten Dictionary. Rev. ed. Shogakukan, 1988. On Microsoft / Shogakukan Bookshelf CD-ROM, Ver. 2.0.
Iwai, Kohaku. Motobu Choki to ryukyuu karate. Tokyo: Airyudo, 2000.
Karate Ni Sente Nashi: In Karate there is no First Strike. Aoinagi Karate. 3 Oct. 2002
Kinjo, Hiroshi. Postscript. “Karate-do Gaisetsu: An Outline of Karate-do.” By Chojun Miyagi. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts Volume Two: Koryu Uchinadi. Comp. and trans. Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy. Boston: Tuttle, 1999. 54-55.
Mabuni, Kenwa, and Genwa Nakasone. Kobo kenpo karate-do nyumon. 1938. Ginowan, Jap.: Yojusha, 1996.
McCarthy, Patrick. “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Mabuni Kenwa Story.” Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts Volume Two: Koryu Uchinadi. Comp. and trans. Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy. Boston: Tuttle, 1999. 1-37.
McCarthy, Patrick, and Yuriko McCarthy, trans. Watashi no karate-jutsu. By Choki Motobu. My Art of Karate. Comp. and trans. Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy. Virginia, Austral.: International Ryukyu Karate Research, 2002. 74-110.
Miyagi, Chojun. “Goju-ryu kenpo.” Karate no kokoro. Seikichi Toguchi. Tokyo: Okinawa Bunka Kyokai, 1986. 129-33.
Miyagi, Chojun. “Ho goju donto: Karate zakko.” Gekkan bunka Okinawa. Aug. 1942: 4-7.
Miyagi, Chojun. “Karate-do Gaisetsu: An Outline of Karate-do.” Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts Volume Two: Koryu Uchinadi. Comp. and trans. Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy. Boston: Tuttle, 1999. 39-55.
Motobu, Choki. Watashi no karate-jutsu. Nippon denryu hyoho motobu kenpo. Superv. Chosei Motobu. Kawaguchi, Jap.: Sojinsha, 1993. [61-173.]
Nagamine, Shoshin. The Essence of Okinawan Karate-do. Rutland: Tuttle, 1976.
Nakata, Mizuhiko. Motobu Choki sensei: Goroku. Superv. Kenji Marukawa. Ed. Tamotsu Onuma. 1978. Motobu Choki seiden: Ryukyu kenpo karate-jutsu tatsujin. Ed. Tamotsu Onuma. Kawaguchi, Jap.: Sojinsha, 1993. 39-58.
Nakayama, Masatoshi. Karate-do: Seishin to giho. Nagano, Jap.: Kazusa, 1985.
Noble, Graham. “A Meeting with Chosei Motobu.” Classical Fighting Arts, Issue 1: 41-47.
“Sen no sen” Tuttle Dictionary of the Martial Arts of Korea, China & Japan. Comp. Sun-Jin Kim, Daniel Kogan, Nikolaos Kontoggiannis and Hali Wong. Rutland: Tuttle, 1995.
“Sensen no sen” Tuttle Dictionary of the Martial Arts of Korea, China & Japan. Comp. Sun-Jin Kim, Daniel Kogan, Nikolaos Kontoggiannis and Hali Wong. Rutland: Tuttle, 1995.
Swift, Joe. “Re: Miyagi Document.” E-mail to the author. 10 Oct. 2003.
Swift, Joe. “Re: Miyagi Translation.” E-mail to the author. 20 Oct. 2003.
Copyright © Mark J. Tankosich 2004
Karate Ni Sente Nashi — Defense Arts Center
Sensei James Augur
Philosophy Essay, Yondan Exam
August 15, 2011
(open as pdf)
Funakoshi Sensei left Shotokan with twenty precepts or concepts of training. The second of these concepts is: “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” or, loosely translated, “There is no first attack in karate”1 This precept seems to be simple, and yet has hidden depths of meaning. On the surface, it is easy to dismiss this precept with the observation that karate is the emptyhand art of self-defense. Certainly, karate does not teach a person to attack another, but only to defend oneself from attack, and then only if there is no other way to avoid conflict or prevent injury or death. A karateka may be able to anticipate an attack and counter before the attack can be launched. Yet this concept may be difficult to explain should the martial artist be brought to court to answer for their actions.
An article written in 1922 in Tokyo quoted Funakoshi Sensei as saying: “Essentially, the principle purpose of karate is defense. The initial move has long been strictly prohibited, and it is said there is no initial move in karate. This martial art is to cultivate a modest mind, which must not be uselessly carried away by the martial spirit. Moreover, it requires no weapon. So, I think it is most suitable as a civilized self-defense art. “2 It is evident that this “initial move” is what Funakoshi referred to in the second precept. Every initial move in every kata is said to be defensive in nature in tribute to the idea that a karateka does not seek violence and does not attack. However, the art of karate is an active art and does encompass strategy because the opponent might not oblige the karateka by not attacking.
There are three basic strategies of conflict in karate. The first is referred to as sen which translates as “seizing the initiative” or attacking. The second strategy is sen no sen, which loosely translates as “waiting for the opponent to attack and countering.” The final strategy is go no sen, which translates as “countering the opponent’s initiative before it physically occurs”3 This final strategy relates directly to the hidden meaning of the second precept.
Go no sen strategy means attacking the opponent in the short space of time between the opponent’s decision to attack and the actual, physical, attack.4 If the karateka can “see” the attack coming, and act to prevent it from occurring, this is the ultimate type of self-defense. This is the art of fighting without fighting, as the karateka can escape if he knows an attack is imminent. However, the karateka cannot fix their mind on the “attack” or fix their mind on the “response to attack”. Paranoia causes tension, which prevents quick response to an attack.5 Therefore, the karateka must not think of the attack, or the form of the attack, or of a response to an attack, as this attitude will stop the mind and the body from responding quickly. Such thoughts would be, “Will the attack be to the face, the body, or the groin? Will it be a punch, a kick, or a downward strike? Will I be walking, standing, sitting, or lying down? Will I be attacked from the front, the side, the rear?” Any of these thoughts will cause the opposite of relaxation in the body and in the mind.
The body must respond easily and without restriction to an attack. Therefore, the mind must be calm and not tense with thoughts about attacks. Bruce Lee addressed this concept during a conversation with Joe Hyams.
“If it was a real fight, I’m certain I would hurt my assailant badly, perhaps kill him. If that happened, and I was forced to stand trial, I would plead that I had no responsibility for my action. I had responded to his attack without conscious awareness. ‘It’ killed him, not me.. ‘It’ is when you act with unconscious awareness, you just act. ‘It’ is the state of mind the Japanese refer to as mushin , which literally means “no mind”. 6
Another anecdote by Randall Hassell illustrates this concept further. During his karate training, an incident occurred that involved “first attack” One of his fellow students, a Mr. Smith, was cornered by an aggressive person on the street who demanded his wallet. Mr. Smith refused, and the attacker swung a club at him. The student responded by defending himself against the assailant. However, the head instructor was not impressed with the student’s action.
“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! No, no, no. This is a terrible example of self-defense. Smith-san not understand anything! Let bad guy hit him like makiwara.”7
Another fellow student of Mr. Hassell’s , Mr. Jones, had a different experience. He, too, was threatened on the street. He attempted to calm down his antagonist but. “Sure enough, just as my friend spoke to us, the troublemaker took a step toward him (Mr. Jones) with his right hand raised. .. Jones spun around with blinding speed, uttered a fierce kiai, and planted the hardest reverse punch imaginable in the loudmouth’s face.”8
The instructor’s reaction to this incident was very different. “Jones-san ok. He not start fight. He tried to avoid, had no choice. Must fight. Did good job.”9 The difference between the events is that the first student should have perceived that the first attack was the demand for the wallet. He should not have waited for the actual, physical attack before acting. The second student perceived that the first attack was imminent when his attacker stepped towards him, hand raised. He did not wait for the actual attack to occur before striking to prevent the attack.
Therefore, there is no “first attack” in karate. The karateka should neither think of attack or of the fear of attack. According to the law, self-defense is permitted only when a person is apprehensive about being attacked and the apprehension is reasonable.10 A martial artist might have trouble convincing a jury that he “sensed” his opponent was about to attack, and struck first to prevent the attack. To a layperson, it would appear that the martial artist has started the conflict because he struck first. The courts do seem to recognize this factor:
“If the defendant reasonably knows that he or she is about to be attacked, he may resort to self-defense before being actually struck.”11
The problem is convincing a jury of non-martial artists that the karateka was reasonably apprehensive about being attacked and was convinced that an attack was about to happen. Some instructors train their students to explain to a jury or a police officer what movements of the attacker would lead them to think an attack was imminent and to respond by attacking before the attack could be physically launched.12 Learning to explain this aspect to a layperson may keep the karateka out of jail or the hospital.
In conclusion, the precept of no first attack in karate is deceptively simple. A karateka should train so that any attack can be detected before it is launched and therefore avoided. However, if the karateka needs to counter this attack before it can be physically generated, the martial artist should be prepared to explain to laypersons what actions by the attacker prompted this counter in self-defense.
1. Randall Hassell, Shotokan Karate: Its History & Evolution [Los Angeles: Empire Books, 2007], 164.
2. Ibid., 36.
3. Randall Hassell, The Karate Experience: A Way of Life [Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1980], 34-35.
4. Ibid., 34.
5. Ibid., 35
6. Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts [New York: Bantam Books, 1979], 81-83.
7. Randall Hassell, The Karate Spirit [St. Louis: Focus Publications, 1989], 121.
8. Ibid., 122.
9. Ibid., 124.
10. Carl Brown, The Law and Martial Arts [Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications, Inc., 1998], 67.
11. Ibid., 95.
12. Dan Jones, Karate: The Isshinryu Way [Knoxville: Dan W. Jones, 2002], 47, 55.
1. Brown, Carl. The Law and Martial Arts. Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications, Inc., 1998.
2. Hassell, Randall. The Karate Experience: A Way of Life. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1980.
3. Hassell, Randall. The Karate Spirit. St. Louis: Focus Publications, 1989.
4. Hassell, Randall. Shotokan Karate: Its History & Evolution. Los Angeles: Empire Books, 2007.
5. Hyams, Joe. Zen in the Martial Arts. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
6. Jones, Dan. Karate: The Isshinryu Way. Knoxville: Dan W. Jones, 2002.
“Karate Ni Sente Nashi” á la Motobu Choki
In 1943, an interesting incident took place at a big restaurant somewhere in central Okinawa.
A party was being held at the restaurant this evening, and one of the invited guests of honor happened to be Choki Motobu.
Yes, Choki Motobu, the notorious Karate master/former street fighter (or thug if you asked Gichin Funakoshi) who devoted his entire life to training in and teaching the Okinawan art of Karate in a “no-nonsense”, uncompromising manner, was a VIP at this particular party.
Arriving at the restaurant, Motobu – being an elder – was not given a seat near the entrance (like most guests) but rather all the way inside the restaurant. This was nothing strange though, since seating is an important part of the Japanese culture – where you sit among other people clearly shows what position you have in the social hierarchy.
And Motobu was, after all, the descendant of the sixth son of the Okinawan King, Sho Shitsu (1629-1668), namely Sho Koshin.
Sitting at the back was a place of honor.
And – as we will soon see – it was a great strategical place to sit at if a fight was about to go down.
As the evening slowly progressed, the party was going great. Speeches were being held, good food was being eaten, a glass of Okinawan sake or two were swept down and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Until an unknown man suddenly burst into the restaurant.
His body was covered with tattoos of all kinds of shapes, and there was no doubt that he was clearly upset about something. The man stared around the room, and loudly announced that he had once been a student of Motobu and now demanded to challenge him in front of everyone!
Can you imagine!?
Several guests immediately stood up and scolded the former student for being so rude. “Students should never say such things to their master, get out of here!” they said.
But he wouldn’t listen.
Motobu himself, who had just noticed the newly arrived “guest”, calmly put his chopsticks down and reached for his AK-47 (no, just kidding! Ignore this line!)
“Just shut up, will you!” yelled the former student, now displaying a big knife in front of everybody. This came as no surprise though, since he was a butcher by trade.
Th e man spotted Motobu, and started making his way through the crowd, finally facing Motobu. “If can use this,” he said, waving the knife in front of Motobu’s face, “I will never lose the fight!” he declared – stabbing the knife straight down into Motobu’s table.
For the record, Motobu had been called many things in his life, but a poor fighter was never one them, and certainly not a coward. His record for quickly dispatching challengers in no-rules confrontations clearly spoke for itself, and in fact, Motobu had never lost a fight after the age of 20, according to himself.
If picking bare-knuckle fights in the shady Tsuji red-light district of Naha was an art, then Motobu was Rembrandt himself.
Ignoring a challenge like this was nothing Motobu intended to do.
Especially not now when this madman had totally ruined Motobu’s appetite.
At this point, naturally, many of the guests became frightened and ran out of the room, since they figured the whole place was going to get trashed any second.
But Motobu’s expression remained unchanged.
“I won’t fight with any weapons,” he stated calmly. “And I will absolutely not fight with a knife!” Motobu continued.
But the aggressive butcher insisted, since he knew that we could never take on Motobu “Saaru” Choki unarmed. The stare down was like something taken straight out of an old ‘Western’ movie.
So finally, Motobu asked “Are you really that determined to fight me with a knife?”
“I am,” the student proclamed defiantly. “And I won’t change my mind!”
“All right then,” said Motobu finally. “I will take you up on your offer, but we should not fight in the restaurant. Let’s go outside and settle this.”
The student didn’t know it, but his fate was just about to take an ugly turn.
The student, looking satisfied, pulled the big knife out of the table and headed for the door. Motobu stood up and followed closely behind. But just before the student reached the door, Motobu took aim, rushed a few steps forward, and kicked his opponent hard like a mule straight in the back.
You could hear his backbone shatter all the way to Hong Kong.
The student fell to the ground with a thud.
A couple of guests hurried to help the now motionless butcher, who was crying in pain, and after considerable effort they were able to carry him all the way to his home.
About a week later, a friend of one of Motobu’s closest students went to visit the butcher to see how he was doing. Even though a whole week had passed, he still could not move from bed.
When he finally recovered (the story never tells us how long this took…), the former student was so embarrassed that he eventually moved, left town, and was never seen in the area again.
And that was the true story of how Motobu Choki ruined a whole party.
But did he really?
I believe that the term “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” is appropriate to bring up at this point. As you may or may not know, “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” is perhaps the most famous proverb/maxim found in Karate (maybe because Funakoshi Gichin used it in every second sentence) and simply means “There is no first attack in Karate”. It’s like a golden rule.
But if you’re going to be picky, “sente” really means “initiative/first move”, and not “attack”.
This difference is small, but important.
You see, as we question the ethics of Motobu’s behaviour in this story, it is vital to realize that although the butcher hadn’t really attacked Motobu per se, he had definitely taken an initiative. To an onlooker it might seem like Motobu just kicked some poor guy’s spine out, but he was actually ending a fight.
A fight that had begun the second that butcher kicked open the restaurant door.
Whether he realized it or not.
And Motobu was simply following “Karate Ni Sente Nashi”.
But the funny thing is, even though Motobu acted in perfect accordance with the “golden rule” of Karate he often admitted to disliking the rule himself! He was often quoted as saying “Karate is sente!” which at a first glance would seem like the exact opposite of “Karate Ni Sente Nashi”.
I think this stems from both the fact that he openly disliked his rival Funakoshi (who loved saying “Karate Ni Sente Nashi”) as well as from the fact that he interpreted “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” as “you can’t punch somebody unless they punch you first”, when it really should be about ‘evil’ intent and initiative on a more strategical or metaphysical plane.
However, being the ‘no-nonsense’ man that he was – perhaps metaphysics was not Motobu’s strongest side.
To round it off, let’s look at something Nagamine Shoshin wrote in his book “Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters” that I think is truly important:
“The time has come to learn in sincere humility the true meaning of “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” […] In martial arts, wherever kokoro [the spirit] has been forgotten, or never learned, so too will the principle of “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” also be misunderstood, or worse, not even known! In reality, “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” is a warning, and any martial artist who ignores this maxim is a hypocrite.”
Consider yourself warned.
Karate ni sente nashi?
Back in about 2009 I was talking to a friend of mine who does krav maga, telling him I was off to Taiwan to train in combat taijiquan (tai chi). He laughed. “Combat tai chi? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” I can see why he thought that. Because when you look at the soft, slow art of taijiquan, adding the descriptor “combat” does seem to be a contradiction in terms. In fact, the idea of it being used for fighting can appear ludicrously funny . And to be frank, in the case of most taiji practitioners – including many who profess “fighting skill” on the interwebs – it almost certainly is. [In the case of the preceding link, note the string attacks against zombie opponents – more on that later!] By now, I doubt there is anyone in the martial arts who hasn’t heard of the debacle that constituted the recent fight between MMA fighter Xu Xiadong and self-described Yang style taijiquan “master” Wei Lei. Xu beat Wei senseless in under 10
There is No First Attack in Karate (karate ni sente nashi)
There is No First Attack in Karate in Japanese is 空手に先手無し which is read karate ni sente nashi
The Japanese sentence karate ni sente nashi means “There is no first attack (strike) in karate” and reminds us, as Mr. Miyagi would say, “karate is defense only.” This is the second rule in Niju Kun, or twenty rules, established by the founder of Shotokan Karate Gichin Funakoshi. For more information see the excellent article Karate ni Sente Nashi: What the Masters had to Say by Mark J. Tankosich.
karate ni sente nashi is composed of the kanji 空手 (read karate) meaning “Karate”, the grammatical element に (read ni) meaning “in”, 先手 (read sente) meaning “first move; first strike” and 無し (read nashi) the verb meaning “no; without.
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“Karate ni sente nashi” (空手に先手なし)
“Karate ni sente nashi” (空手に先手なし), typically translated as, “There is no first attack in karate.”
Gichin Funakoshi made this principle the second of his “Niju Kun” (Twenty Precepts), reminding us that “karate begins and ends with courtesy”.
Karate and particularly kata, often suffers a bad name for being outdated and unrealistic. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. When you look closer at the art’s core principles, you will see that those principles are just as relevant today as they were many years ago.
It is often cited that kata always begin with a “block”, a defensive method. Therefore following the maxim of “there is no first attack in karate”. However, the motions in kata often labelled as “blocks” (uke from ukeru- to receive) don’t work well as blocks. They are often perceived to move firstly in the wrong direction, and are too big and slow. They do, however, work well when used in other ways.
Therefore to believe that “there is no first attack in karate” as solely a defensive principle, meaning that we shouldn’t attack first, in my view, is incorrect.
Choki Motobu, in his 1932 publication ‘Watashi no karate-jutsu’ wrote; “There is an expression, ‘karate ni sente nashi’. Apparently some people interpret this literally and often profess that ‘one must not attack first’, but I think that they are seriously mistaken. To be sure, it is certainly not the budo spirit to train for the purpose of striking others without good reason. [..] when an enemy is serious about doing one harm, one must fiercely stand and fight. When one does fight, taking control of the enemy is crucial, and one must take that control with one’s first move. Thus, in a fight one must attack first.”
“Sen sen no sen” (先々の先) another Japanese maxim, translated as, “beyond the future” or “the future ahead”, meaning to seize the initiative by pre-emption, before your opponent can launch a physical attack.
Pre-emption, is often the best option to maximize your chances in any self-protection situation. Following ‘karate ni sente nashi’ literally, requires an attacker to first launch a physical attack before responding, which could be highly dangerous, and is often not the best option.
Kenwa Mabuni wrote; “When faced with someone who disrupts the peace or who will do one harm, one is as a warrior in battle, and so it only stands to reason that one should seize the initiative and pre-empt the enemy’s use of violence. Such action in no way goes against the precept of ‘no first attack’ …the expression ‘karate ni sente nashi’”
The concept of pre-emption is not only recommended by self-protection instructors but it is also recognized in self-defense law. It was a core aspect of traditional karate found within the writings of a number of famous pioneering masters, who were well-known to have supported the karate maxim, “karate ni sente nashi”. They believed that striking first does not necessarily violate the ‘sente nashi’ principle.
“Karate ni sente nashi” then, is not so much a guideline of how to apply karate in a fight, but perhaps a guideline of the standard of behavior expected from its practitioners.
Pragmatic Karate: Traditional Techniques and Their Value in Everyday Life
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Pragmatic Karate: Traditional Techniques and Their Value in Everyday Life Bởi Mark Jennings
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