Soul of Karate-Do
Initial Move and Posture
Japan Karate Association
the early days of karate-do,
for some years after 1935 college karate clubs all over Japan held inter-school
matches. They were called kokangeiko, 'exchange of courtesies practice' and
the participants freely attacked each other with all the karate techniques
at their disposal. Their original purpose was to promote friendship between
clubs. The matches were to consist of displays of kata, the set patterns of
defence and attack, or of practice in attack and counterattack. The latter
was ideally a formalized affair. One person attacked, only once. Then his
opponent counterattacked, again just once. They continued in strictly controlled
alternation. But the young blood of the students ran too hot to be satisfied
with such tameness. They could not resist the temptation to use to the fullest
the techniques they had learned and the powers they had gained through daily
training. There would be five or six contestants from each university in these
free-style matches. Giving a brave yell at a signal, the paired opponents
began to fight. If a melee developed, it was the responsibility of the judges
to step in and part them. The truth is, the judges rarely had time to exercise
their responsibility. It was all over in 30 seconds. Some of the contestants
had broken teeth or twisted noses. Others had earlobes nearly ripped off or
were paralyzed from a kick to the belly. The injured crouching here and there
around the dojo--it was a bloody scene. Karate in its early days had no match
rules, although there was a gentlemen's agreement to avoid attacking vital
organs. Despite the wounded, the custom of holding such "matches"
remained popular for some time. I was a student in a karate club in those
days. If the custom were to continue, I feared, karate would degenerate into
a barbarous and dangerous technique. Yet, defeating an opponent is the common
aim of all the martial arts. A person must fight freely in a match, using
his techniques, if he is to maintain his skill. If that is so, I thought,
then karate is too powerful and too dangerous for match competition.
was developed in Okinawa, where the people were
strictly forbidden to own weapons. Its practitioners
there usually trained themselves alone through practice
centering on kata. They held no matches. Although
we can maintain our technique through practice without
an opponent, we cannot improve our mental and physical
conditioning in preparation for actual battle.
Specifically, we need to learn how to overcome anxiety
or how far we should stand from an opponent. Without
practice against an opponent, we cannot have the
chance to work at our greatest capacity. I was in
a quandary. Fighting is dangerous, but fighting
is indispensable. Only through it can we maintain
the essential skills of our martial art. Even after
graduating from college, I still kept hoping to
see the development of a true match that would make
karate a modern martial art. Once I organized a
match with the contestants wearing protective gear,
but the special clothing was an obstacle and turned
out to be itself the cause of unexpected injuries.
I had to keep looking for a solution. That was just
before the beginning of World War II.
the war, Japan abandoned the militarism of the past
and made a fresh start as a nation based on pacifism.
Even so, the college karate clubs kept holding their
wild fighting contests, and the number of injured
kept mounting. In the new climate of peace, violence
in any form was a hateful thing. If karate remains
as it is, I thought, it will be regarded as the
embodiment of violence and will eventually fade
away. Yet judo and kendo (fencing) were developing
as sports. The glorious contests of swimmers and
baseball players were brightening the postwar gloom.
Young karate practitioners began to hope that karate
would become a sport, would have rules for matches.
I thought it was high time we made a sport of karate.
I studied the rules of many sports and observed
matches. Finally, I developed match rules and styles
of fighting that allowed contestants to use karate
techniques to the fullest without injuring each
other. However, if we put too much emphasis on fighting,
we become loose in technique. To prevent that I
made a contest of the kata, too. The matches I had
worked out, consisting of free-style fighting and
kata, were first performed in Tokyo at the All Japan
Grand Karate Tournament in October 1957, under the
auspices of the Japan Karate Association. They were
most impressive--attack and counter-attack with
rapid, powerful, well-controlled technique. The
kata contestants displayed quick, beautiful movements.
Both the fighting and the kata left the audience
impressed. Not one contestant was injured in the
free-style fighting. The new matches were a great
success. That was the beginning of the free-style
fighting matches performed today in karate tournaments
around the world. Finally a match form close to
actual fighting had come to the public.
As you can see, I solved my quandary and succeeded
in creating the karate match. I'm still afraid of
one thing however. As karate matches become popular,
karate practitioners become too absorbed in winning.
It is easy to think that gaining a point matters
most, and matches are likely to lose the quickness
of action characteristic of karate. In that case,
karate matches would degenerate into mere exchanges
of blows. Moreover, I cannot say whether the idea
of free-fighting styles matches the soul of karate
as taught by Master Funakoshi Gichin, the founder
of karate-do. For as you will later see, the soul
of his karate requires quite a high standard of
of Virtuous Men Master Funakoshi often
recited an old Okinawan saying: "Karate is
the art of virtuous men." Needless to say,
for students of karate to thoughtlessly boast of
their power or to display their technique in scuffles
goes against the soul of karate-do. The meaning
of karate-do goes beyond victory in a contest of
mastery or self-defence techniques. Unlike common
sports, karate-do has a soul of its own. To be a
true master is to understand the soul of karate-do
as a martial Way. Karate-do has grown popular these
days, and its soul is apt to pass from our minds.
Here I would discuss the soul of karate, returning
to the roots of that martial Way. It is said that
karate has no initial move (sente). That is an admonition
to practitioners not to launch the initial attack
and concurrently a strict prohibition against thoughtlessly
using the techniques of karate. The masters of karate,
especially Master Funakoshi, strictly admonished
their pupils with those words again and again. In
fact, it is not going too far to say that they represent
the soul of karate-do.
In karate, the power of the whole body is focused
on one part, such as a fist or foot, so that immense
destructive power is loosed in a moment; hence the
warning: Regard your fists and feet as swords. In
a match the attacker's fist or foot is in principle
aimed at a target a few centimeters, an inch or
so, from the opponent's body in order not to injure
Out of consideration of such destructive power,
come the words: There is no initial move in karate.
That spirit is embodied in the kata, the patterns
forming the core of karate-do practice. Karate has
two forms of practice: kata and kumite (mock fighting).
The kata are patterns of combined defence and attack
that assume four or eight enemies right, left, in
front and in back. As far as I know, there are 40
or 50 kinds of kata. Each begins with defence (uke).
You may argue that since karate was born as an art
of self-defence, it is natural that it has no initial
move. That is certainly true, but if you immediately
conclude from the words, "There is no initial
move in karate," that you can freely counterattack,
you have not yet fully grasped the soul of karate-do.
The underlying meaning of those words is much deeper.
In addition to refraining from attacking first,
practitioners of karate are required not to create
an atmosphere that will lead to trouble. They also
must not visit places where trouble is likely to
happen. To observe those prohibitions, the practitioner
must cultivate a gentle attitude toward others and
a modest heart. That is the spirit underlying the
words, "There is no initial move in karate".
And that spirit is the soul of karate-do. One master
says: "Karate is based on attempts to avoid
an trouble, so as not to be hit by others and not
to hit others." Another says: "Harmoniously
avoid trouble, and abhor violence. Otherwise, you
will lose trust and will perish."
At the bottom of the soul of karate-do lies the
wish for harmony among people. Such harmony is based
on courtesy, and it is said that the Japanese Martial
Ways begin with courtesy and end with courtesy.
Such is the case with karate-do. Master Funakoshi
collected the kata of his forerunners then systematized
them into 15 kinds of kata for practice. One, called
Kanku, symbolizes the wish for harmony, the soul
of karate-do. Unlike any other pattern, it begins
with an action unrelated to defence and attack.
The hands are put together, palms outward, and the
practitioner looks at the sky through the triangular
hole formed by his thumbs and fingers. It expresses
self-identification with nature, tranquility, and
the wish for harmony. The practitioner of karate
must always have a modest heart, a gentle attitude,
and a wish for harmony. Karate is truly the art
of virtuous men.
and Void "There
is no initial move in karate" is one saying.
"There is no posture (kamae) in karate"
is another. The former represents karate-do's ethical
aspect. The latter summarizes the proper attitude
in training or actual fighting. Both sayings are
integral elements of the soul of karate-do. When
we say, "There is no posture in karate,"
we basically mean this: you should not stiffen your
body; you should always relax yourself to be ready
for any attack from any direction. When the gale
blows, the stiff oak resists and breaks, the flexible
willow bends and survives.
But even if there is no physical posture, you may
think a certain mental posture necessary. You cannot
relax your attention. That is why in karate-do it
is said: there is posture but no posture. Practitioners
assume a mental posture but not a physical posture.
Actually, that is not the highest stage of the art.
At the highest stage, practitioners of karate should
in actual fighting have posture of neither body
nor mind. Herein lies the deep meaning of "There
is no posture in karate". It is this highest
stage, the essence common to the Martial Ways of
Japan, that I would next explain.
In the 17th century, the Zen priest Takuan gave
Yagyu Munenori a treatise which had great influence
on the ideological side of the Martial Ways of Japan.
It is popularly called "Fudochi Shinmyo Floku"
and in it, Takuan wrote:
"If you place your mind on the movements of
your opponent, your mind is absorbed by the movements
of your opponent. If your mind is on the sword of
your opponent, your mind is absorbed by the sword
of your opponent. If your mind is on cutting your
opponent, your mind is absorbed by cutting your
opponent. If your mind is on your sword, your mind
is absorbed by your sword. If your mind is on not
being cut, your mind is absorbed by not being cut...
" Where, then, should the mind be! You should
put your mind nowhere. Then your mind is diffused
throughout your body, stretched out, totally unfettered.
If your arms are important, it serves your arms.
If your legs are important, it serves your legs.
If your eyes are important, it serves your eyes.
It works freely in the body wherever necessary.
"If you concentrate on one place, your mind,
absorbed by that place, is useless. If you are worried
about where to place your mind, your mind is absorbed
by that worry. Ku should throw off worry and reason.
Let your mind go over your entire body, and never
fix your mind on a certain place. Then your mind
must accurately serve in response to the needs of
each part of your body."
short, the Zen priest says that the mind, if placed
nowhere, is everywhere. The concept reflects Buddhism's
abhorrence, especially in the Zen Sect, of attachment
and bonds. Such antipathy is based on the concept
of "void" in Mahayana Buddhism. In Buddhism
the English "void" or "emptiness"
translates the Japanese word ku, derived from the
Sanskrit sunyata. Its original meaning is to be
lacking in or to be wanting in. Mahayana Buddhism
arose in opposition to the rigid doctrine of traditional
Buddhism and made the bold assertion that we should
not be trapped by the difference between good and
evil, or enlightenment and illusion. That assertion
seems to destroy ethical value, but Mahayana Buddhism
claims that it strengthens ethical value. When we
reach the stage wherein we adhere to nothing, our
actions are naturally good. The basic idea of Mahayana
Buddhism, Ku, is different from nothingness and
is difficult to understand. It cannot be explained
in a few words, but perhaps a specific example will
help you understand void and one of its aspects--denial
we first learn how to drive a car, we find it very
difficult and take every precaution. But once we
have thoroughly mastered driving, we can be quite
at ease while we drive and still not break the rules.
We aren't very conscious of our driving technique.
Mahayana Buddhism aims at attaining the stage of
enlightenment without worrying about the difference
between good and evil, or enlightenment and illusion.
That, too, is the highest stage of actual fighting
in karatedo. There we do not have posture of mind.
In the martial arts, when we have attained the highest
stage after long years of training, we return to
the first stage. In the first stage, where we do
not know any posture or technique,we do not fix
our minds anywhere. When attacked, we simply respond
unconsciously, without strategy. But as we come
to understand posture, the use of technique, and
fighting tactics through our study of technique,
we occupy our minds with all sorts of things. The
mind is divided into attack or counterattack and
loses its freedom. After a long period of further
practice, we can move unconsciously, freely, and
That is the highest stage of karatedo, the true
meaning of "there is no posture of mind".
That stage can be reached only after hard and painstaking
training, but it has nothing to do with physical
strength. In the West, physical strength counts
for much in the martial arts. Men of a certain age
must quit. Karate-do, however, emphasizes technique
based on the practice of kata. We can continue to
practice this martial art for a lifetime, no matter
how much our physical strength declines. The more
we practice, the more gracefully we can move. Finally,
we attain the highest stage, where there is posture
in neither mind nor body.