Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.

The following article originally appeared in the Journal of the Shoto Research Society International, and is reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright © Joe Swift. All rights reserved. See his website Traditional Karate Kobudo.

See parts 1, 2, 3 or 4 of the article.


Wisdom from the Past: Tidbits on Kata
Applications from Pre-War Karate Books.
Part One

By Joe Swift

The Okinawan self defense art known today as Karatedo has undergone some major changes since its "public debut" a mere century ago. These changes have come about for many reasons, including its internationalization and popularization as a competitive sport. While these are important aspects of modern Karatedo, the "old masters" agreed upon one thing: the essence of the martial art lies within its kata.

A few present-day practitioners seem to have taken this to heart, and are painstakingly researching and studying applications of the kata from a multitude of angles. While this is admirable, it has also spawned a new era of martial fads, through which such aspects of kata application as kyushojutsu are seen as a magic bullet. While attacking the anatomically vulnerable areas of the human body has always been an integral part of self-defense, it does not negate the need for hard training and correctly executed basics.

This series shall take a look at some tidbits that the pre-WWII karate pioneers have left us, in terms of their writings and publications. What will be presented here are both general comments on kata applications, as well as specific techniques. While they do not, by any means, tell "the whole story" they do serve as hints for modern day practitioners. It is hoped that through this article, we, as modern practitioners of this age-old self-defense tradition, may come to understand a little more about the treasures tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the kata, and that we come to see that they "really did know what they were doing."

Kobo Kenpo Karatedo Nyumon
Although not as well known as his colleague Funakoshi Gichin, perhaps one of the most prolific writers on karate in the pre-war era was Mabuni Kenwa. Having published several books, including Karate Kenpo (1934), Seipai no Kenkyu (1934) and Karatedo Nyumon (1938), Mabuni definitely left his mark on karate literature.

Mabuni Kata Oyo 1
1. Defending from the ground.
Defender hooks the attacker's legs.
Leg lock
2. Pulls and applies a leg lock.
Looks like the step 2 of Enpi Kata.

Karatedo Nyumon is more than just an introductory text. While it does cover history, fundamentals, kata and kumite, just like any other karate book, it has much to offer the advanced student and instructor as well. It is also probably safe to say that if one reads between the lines, that they will come to understand just how deeply Mabuni understood this classical self defense system, not only technically, but spiritually as well.

Let us now take a look at three excerpts from this book. The first deals with kata and directions, and is found on pages 139-140, in the section for Pinan Nidan.

Kata and Directions:
The meaning of the directions in kata is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that "this kata moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents" or some such nonsense. I would like to specifically address this issue now.

Looking at the enbusen for Pinan Nidan, one can see that karate kata move in all directions, forward and back, left and right. When interpreting kata, one must not get too caught up in these directions. For example, do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because a kata begins to the left that the opponent is always attacking from the left. There are two ways of looking at this:

  1. The kata is defending against an attack from the left.
  2. Angle to the left against a frontal attack.

At first glance, both of these look alright. However, looking at only number (1), the meaning of the kata becomes narrow, and the kata, which in reality must be applied freely in any situation, becomes awfully meager in its application.

Looking at an actual example, the 5 Pinan kata all start to the left, and then repeat the same series of techniques to the right. Looking at interpretation (1), the opponent must always attack from the left, and while fighting that opponent, another opponent comes from behind so the defender turns to fight that opponent. This type of interpretation is highly unreasonable.

Looking at interpretation number (2) however, the 5 Pinan kata show us that against an attack from the front we can evade either left or right to put ourselves in the most advantageous position to defend ourselves.

Next, let us look at a specific technique from Pinan Sandan, specifically the turn after the nukite, and how it can be used to escape from a joint-wrench. This is found on page 176.

Escape from Arm Bar
If the opponent grabs our right hand and twists it to the inside, out body will naturally turn backwards. It is also fine to think of this as a defense against the arm being wrenched from behind. When the opponent has our arm in this position, still facing backwards, we want to lean the upper body forward as far as possible (zenkutsu). This is because in order to effectively perform the next portion of the technique, we want the space between our body and that of the opponent to be as far as possible.

Next, take a large step back with the left foot, which was forward, and try to step between the opponent's legs, while taking a low sumo posture (shiko), and pull the left hand back. The left arm will go under the opponent's arm, so one should take care to strongly strike the opponent's arm with the left elbow. By simply hooking the opponent's arm with the left elbow, the reverse arm bar will usually be broken. No matter how hard the opponent tries to hold onto our wrist and keep the arm bar, his arm will actually be locked, and he will usually release the hold due to the force of our left elbow striking his arm.

Not only will the opponent release his joint lock, but because we first pulled away from him, then turned around into him, he will also loose his balance. One should counterattack with the right fist without hesitation.

And finally, let us now take a look at the very final section of the book, on throws and joint locks in karate, found on page 209.

Nagewaza and Gyakuwaza
The karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually a single part of a larger whole. The fact that those who have learned karate in Tokyo think that it consists only of hand strikes and kicks, and that throws and joint locks are only a part of jujutsu or judo can only be attributed to their lack of awareness on this art. While it can be said that this is an unavoidable situation because only a small part of karate was introduced, this is very regretful from the point of view of the popularization of karate. Those people who are truly thinking of the future of karate should not keep a closed mind and limit themselves to learning only an empty shell, but should strive to study the complete art.

The Gojuryu kata contain many interesting throws and joint techniques that were not introduced to Tokyo, and the practitioners of that system never neglect their study of these throws. (The previously described escape from a full nelson is an example of a throw found in the Gojuryu kata).

The kata of Gojuryu contain a plethora of study materials, so it is suggested that the karate practitioner cultivate a progressive temprament based upon a "strong and free Japanese spirit."

It is hoped that the reader was able to gain a better appreciation of Mabuni's understanding of kata, glean a few ideas about kata application, and understand that the pre-war books on karatedo can be virtual treasure troves of information.

The next installment of this series will take a look at the writings of Shotokan's architect, Funakoshi Gichin. Stay tuned!


Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.