Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared in the Hawaii Pacific Press, October 1, 1999. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Karate Ethics:
Demon's Hand, Saint's Heart

By Charles C. Goodin

Karate training builds character. It makes one a better human being. Most people are familiar with the rigorous physical training endured by karate students, particularly in the early days of the art in Okinawa, Japan and Hawaii. Despite the seemingly "superhuman" feats of some karate practitioners, physical conditioning and demonstrations represent only the most basic level of training.

Because of the tremendous danger posed by a well-trained fist, the teachers of old were extremely careful in selecting their students. A prospective student might be forced to endure numerous rejections, insults and even physical attacks from the teacher before he was considered for acceptance. Once accepted, he might then have to endure months or years of menial chores followed by grueling and monotonous basic training exercises. A student could expect to spend at least three years on the first kata (form or sequence of movements).

A clenched fist represents the destructive potential of karate.

All this was designed to test the student's patience and determination. Moreover, it ensured that the student would develop sound basics -- something that is overlooked far too often in today's fast paced world where even young children are awarded black belts! Naturally, a high percentage of students quit out of sheer frustration. The system was designed to eliminate hot tempered and impatient students before they could learn the more dangerous aspects of karate. In addition, students were constantly taught ethics in the form of sayings or stories that were handed down from generation to generation.


One of the most well-known sayings is that "karate begins and ends with courtesy." On the surface level, we observe that each kata begins and ends with a bow. The student also bows when entering and leaving the dojo and when greeting his sensei and seniors. Bowing and similar formalities, however, represent only the outer form of courtesy. A karate student's courtesy must flow from the heart (kokoro) and extend to respect for life itself. As such, karate is never used for aggressive purposes but only for self-defense as a last resort.

The open hand symbolizes karate ethics and restraint.


The greatest ethic of karate is to avoid its use. "Karate ni sente nashi" means that "there is no first attack in karate." As a defensive, unarmed art, karate is only used when there is no other alternative. The best strategy is to prevent or avoid a confrontation. When one is attacked unexpectedly, karate may be used but only to the extent necessary. If attacked by a single assailant, some of the teachers of old recommended the use of non-deadly techniques similar to those practiced in judo or jujutsu. The potentially lethal striking and kicking techniques of karate were reserved for attacks by armed or multiple assailants.

"Karate ni senti nashi" means more than not attacking first. By such as simple definition, a karate practitioner could simply wait for an attack and deliver a deadly counter-attack. Karate students are taught to hold back their fists when angry and to ensure that they are calm and clear-headed when forced into a defensive situation. Zuiho Mutsu, who visited Hawaii in 1933 along with Kamesuke Higashionna, was quoted as saying that "a fist in the pocket is the best place for it." Hawaii's Kenpo pioneer James Mitose described the fist as a "treasure in the pocket." Just as a sword is best kept in its scabbard (saya), so too is a fist best withheld, or kept in the pocket.


When the situation calls for it, a karate practitioner will commit himself wholeheartedly to the cause of justice, whether directed toward his own defense or the protection of others. Gichin Funakoshi, one of the Okinawans most responsible for the introduction of karate to mainland Japan, and the founder of the Shotokan form of karate, wrote that "true Karate-Do is this: that in daily life, one's mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice." Shoshin Nagamine, founder of the Matsubayashi-Ryu form of Shorin-Ryu wrote that "the dojo is the place where courage is fostered and superior human nature is bred through the ecstasy of sweating in hard work."

The open hand covers the fist, just as ethics restrain the karate practitioner's actions. Many karate kata begin and end with the hands in this position.

Karate in Daily Life.

The goal of being able to defend oneself is limited. Of infinitely greater importance is how the karate student conducts himself in daily life. Teijunsoku (Nago Oyakata) wrote that "no matter how you may excel in the art of te, and in your scholastic endeavors, nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life." Gichin Funakoshi added "when you learn how karate is related to everyday life, you will have discovered its essence. In this respect, daily life can be considered to be the true dojo.

It is useful to be able to block punches. On a day-to-day basis, it is probably more useful to be able to handle criticism and unexpected difficulties. How does one act when faced by a problem at work or at home? A karate student sees such situations as part of his training. He can remain calm when punched and easily deflect the blow -- so too should he be able to remain calm when cursed at or when a driver acts rudely on the freeway. How does he act in an emergency? Can he summon all his strength and determination at a moment's notice? This is the true test of his ability.

A karate student will train for hours in the dojo without complaint. How hard will he work at his job? There should be no difference at all. A student could work for years to obtain a dan ranking. Will he similarly strive to educate himself? A student treats his seniors in the dojo with respect and his juniors with understanding and compassion. How does he treat his family and friends? Again, why should there be a difference?

The measure of a karate student is how he acts as a son, father, husband, friend, and co-worker. If he excels in the techniques of karate but fails in the responsibilities of life, then he should reassess his training. Karate without the ethical component has been described as nothing but "beastly behavior."

Karate is not merely athletics, although there is an athletic component to the art. It also differs from dance and similar performance activities in that the karate student bears a greater responsibility to restrain himself. One of my teachers was fond of saying: "learn to know yourself, be sure you know yourself, then don't show yourself." Karate is definitely not a sport, although some people practice it as such. In Karate there is no sense of winning or losing. If forced to use the art, the student will abandon all sense of self, which negates the premise of any external award or competition. A student accepts rank and title with quiet humility and an acceptance of responsibility rather than with "high fives" and cheers.

The Self As The Opponent.

With daily life constituting the student's real dojo, his own self becomes his true opponent. In this respect, "karate ni senti nashi" can be viewed as a koan or internal riddle. How can there be a first attack when the opponent is the self? Put another way, how can there even be an opponent?

Sadao Yoshioka, one of Hawaii's leading Aikido sensei, used to liken the spirit to a mirror. When covered by dirt and dust, the mirror cannot properly reflect the world. The internal aspect of martial arts training consists of constantly polishing the mirror of self. For each step forward in physical training, the student should take two steps inward!

Karate training builds character. It makes one a better human being. The rigors of internal training are just as arduous as those of physical training. When asked for a brief definition of a good Karate person, Shoshin Nagamine replied: "Kisshu fushin (Oni te hotoke kokoro) -- a demon's hand, a saint's heart."

Do you have a story or photographs of Hawaii's early Karate students or sensei? If so, please contact the author.

Contact Charles C. Goodin

Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai