Karate is for self-defense only.
The popular interpretation of this guiding principle of karate is that karate is for self-defense only. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this interpretation, especially if you are just getting started on your martial arts journey. Teaching this maxim to your students helps instill the rule that karate techniques should not be misused. But is that truly all there is to it?
There is no first strike in karate.
Hmmm. Okay. This phrase does not say, “Karate is for self-defense only.’ It clearly says, “There is no first strike in karate.” Why is that? If they meant to say, “karate is for self-defense only,” why didn’t they just say that. Part of the problem is that these maxims were not coined in English. Most were probably originally written in Chinese, then translated into native Okinawan languages such as Uchināguchi, then possibly Japanese, and finally into English.
Another consideration is the translation itself. Chinese and Japanese languages are rather different from their western counterparts. One-to-one translations of characters into letters can be problematic at best. Thus, the age, knowledge, and life experiences of the translator become a translation factor.
To provide an example of what I am talking about, I will use the Isshin-ryu Code, which is basically a streamlined adaptation of “The Eight Poems of the Fist” found in the Bubishi.
The Isshin-ryu Code
- A person’s heart is the same as Heaven and Earth
- The Blood circulating is similar to the Moon and the Sun
- A manner of drinking or spitting is either hard or soft
- A person’s unbalance is the same as weight
- The body should be able to change direction at any time
- The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself
- The eyes must see all sides
- The ears must listen in all directions
- Man’s spirit, heart, mind : is like (same as) : Heaven : Earth
- Blood, hope, range, pulse : is like : Moon (day – date) : Sun (month)
- Stiff – hard, strong. stubborn, inflexible : Soft-gentle, mild-tender, mellow : Take in (soak in) : Throw out
- Fear, horror : March : Past (pass) : Leave : Meet
- Directions : Any : Time : React (respond) : Flexibility (change)
- Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter
- Eyes : Should : Watch : Four : Directions
- Ears : Laterally placed : To listen to (to comply with) : Eight : Directions
Clearly, the two versions of the Isshin-ryu Code are pretty similar. Version 1 would certainly be easier to “read” for most English-speaking Americans. Version 2 is definitely much more cryptic and makes you want to scratch your head. But beyond that, there are some notable differences. I like to highlight #6 and #8 as the first differences for my students to explore.
Version 1 is found in most books on Isshin-ryu Karate. I have no idea where it comes from. Version 2 is a direct translation of the code’s Kanji by an elderly Chinese gentleman who was known to my instructor. It is the translation his students use and has shaped our training a little differently.
So, where is all this going?
First, if differences in translation can occur in one text, they can occur in another. Second, phrases that mean one thing to a beginner often mean something else to an intermediate, advanced, or long-time student. As an example of this, take The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. If you have read this book more than once, say at different times over your training years, you will understand exactly what I mean. While the words themselves have not changed, your understanding of them will have.
So, here is an alternative “understanding” of the phrase, there is no first strike in karate.
The words could say, there is no first strike in karate because, quite literally, there is no first strike in karate. By way of explanation, here are two examples.
A traditional story
There is an old story of two early karate masters in nearby villages in Okinawa. Each village was very proud of its resident Sensei, and therefore talk soon began around the topic of which was better. Over time, this argument grew to such a fevered pitch that a match became inevitable. Finally, the two masters met on neutral ground and squared off. The residents of both villages gathered to watch. The villagers waited in breathless anticipation for the action to begin. The two masters calmly faced each other, each waiting for an opportunity. It never came. After what seemed like an eternity, the match was called a draw, and the disappointed villagers went home, grumbling to themselves.
A student of one of the Senseis, following his teacher back to their village, finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Sensei, why did you not fight? What was settled by this?”
The Sensei smiled, “We settled the fact that we are both excellent karate-ka. Each of us understood that the first one to strike would surely lose. Therefore, neither of us was willing to strike first.”
From the sport side of things
While over the years, I left sport karate behind, there were many years I did participate. I was never a “Hall of Famer,” but I was a solid competitor. I won some and lost some. Eventually, I refereed matches and judged the kata competitions. I also hosted the Tennessee Valley Karate Championship on the Tennessee Karate Circuit for about seven years. I am not sure that the circuit even exists anymore.
In my experience, there are basically three types of tournament karate fighters: 1) the charger, 2) the runner, and 3) the counter-fighter. Which fighter is harder to beat?
- The charger comes right at you, straight on, fast and hard. However, if you get fairly adept at working angles, you can do well against the charger.
- The runner runs, and you have to chase him all over the ring and try to pin him in a corner. Typically, they get a lot of warnings for running out of the ring. However, if you can learn to control the ring and cut the runner off, you can do well against the runner as well.
- The counter-fighter sits and waits patiently for you to attack. When you do, he simply shifts position, parries, or blocks, and then counter-attacks. And, for my money, this is the toughest competitor to beat.
You cannot initiate an attack with out creating an opening
If your opponent simply has the patience and skill to take advantage of the opening you have just provided them with, you will lose. Perhaps, this is another reason there is no first strike in karate. Especially when losing might be a matter of life or death.
Just food for thought …
That is the beauty of art. It is open to interpretation. And karate, after all, is a martial art. I am just sharing one of my interpretations with anyone interested. It is neither right nor wrong. It is simply another avenue to explore. And, for those who want to argue, I leave you with a few additional thoughts from Mr. Miyagi …
- “The answer is only important if you ask the right question”
- “Only root karate come from Miyagi. Just like bonsai choose own way grow because root strong you choose own way do karate same reason.”
- “First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel-San, not mine.”
Then, of course, if you do understand the point I am making, and when you pair this take on “There is no first strike in karate” with “Hand meets in the air, suddenly enter,” pretty cool things begin to happen. But that’s a subject for another day.