EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
What a great interview with sensei Robin Rielly and a huge thank you to JD Swanson for conducting the interview for SKM. It’s a lengthy interview so it’s in two parts. Some of the long-time subscribers will most likely remember Robin Rielly’s first interview in SKM from Issue 78 (January 2004) which was also excellent. Interesting to me is when he said that in 1963.....“At that time JKA was just coming off the five degrees rank system and going to ten, so sandan was pretty high”.
I always find it thought provoking to know that Godan (5th Dan) was the original maximum Dan-grade level established and awarded by the Shotokan Karate-Do founder, Master Gichin Funakoshi (also mentioned in the Caylor Adkins article).
What I don’t get, or don’t really agree with, is high Dan-grades being awarded after only a few years of training. I wonder what Gichin Funakoshi sensei would have thought about that? He probably would have just smiled knowingly and said nothing. Surely it should be about karate experience through years and years of continual study and practise of the art. The Gichin Funakoshi 5th Dan limit seems totally sufficient to me but time moves on!
As well as Robin Rielly, this issue has a definite American Shotokan emphasis, with the article on the late Caylor Adkins, and Michael Busha’s article discussing Uke (blocking) as an attacking, finishing-blow (ikken hissatsu) option.
I’ve always agreed with this concept that the basic so called ‘blocks’ especially, age uke, soto uke, uchi uke, gedan barai and shuto uke, are in fact also attacking techniques, with the preparatory positions of these basic movements being the actual ‘block’ or ‘parry’. I don’t know about you, but I find that as you get older you tend to favour evasive, light blocking/parrying actions using good timing and movement, as opposed to the ‘old style’ slam-dunk, battering-ram blocks we used to do, where you ended up with black and blue bruises and swollen, painful egg-like lumps on your arms and shins for weeks!!
I’m sure we have all experienced in the past dreading being partnered-up with the 220lb bruiser (no pun intended) with arms like Popeye’s who can’t wait to smash your arms or legs with his club-like attacking-blocks! There was no thought of evasion or timing! Just inflicting pain and damage!
So, as much as I agree in principle with the concept of Michael Busha’s excellent article, as the old expression goes; ‘sod that for a game of soldiers’! Move, evade, save your energy/power for the counter-strike or punch, is my motto these days!
In theory I’m certain that we all agree, a pre-emptive strike is the best strategy in the real world. But the dojo is definitely not the real world, that is a fact, so blocking and countering which relies on timing and reaction, simply has to be continued to be practised in the dojo. The nearest we can get to a pre-emptive strike in the dojo is by intercepting the attack, (deai) which requires excellent ‘timing’. Although it could be argued that the ‘attacker’ in any form of kumite (dojo or competition) is, in effect making a pre-emptive action!
Good health, good training, Editor.
UKE – AS IKKEN HISSATSU. By Michael Busha.
The title and the topic of my article came to me from an article written by Kagawa Sensei in Karate Practical Training on May 10, 2010, “… learn how to receive the first attack by our enemy … and fight back immediately with a block that is not just defending but attacking. Use all of your body-make it heavy. Same feeling as Ikken Hissatsu (one punch kill).” Kagawa Sensei’s ideas resonated with me and I decided to research the topic of uke as Ikken Hissatsu.
In a real fight, how many times should a person block an attack and then counter? On the street, should the defender depend on avoiding the strike by first blocking and then also depend on the counter punch to find its mark effectively? In a dangerous situation, can we expect two techniques to be perfect? If you waste the first move, you will be dead and there will be no second move.
“You have to eliminate the root cause of the attack. Just receiving and countering all day does nothing but move the same maai (distancing) around as in a dance. The attacker responds to your counter and on and on like a tennis volley. When you just “block” you are still in danger of the attackers next strike unless the block changes his will or destroys him and therefore you may have already lost.” (Yushin Ryu).
The samurai had a proverb that provides imagery for this idea “Just because you have two swords, don’t count on the second one to save your life… cut with the first sword” (the ‘block’).
During my first stay at the Hoitsugan dojo 1985, Nakayama sensei would often invite someone from outside the Shotokan system to the dojo to enhance our understanding of other budo and also some of the roots of Japanese culture. Sensei brought in a classical Noh (or nogaku) performer so we could learn how to step without making noise while staying low in stance.
Another time sensei brought in two Bon Odori performers (dancers depicting the history or work of the region). This, sensei said, was meant to show us some of the parallel traditions that resemble our kata and may have influenced kata in one way or another (or, as he added, vice versa).
This idea was discussed even before that in Randall Hassell’s ‘Conversations With The Master’, where Nakayama Sensei explained that “Noh and Kabuki are based on the fundamental philosophy of budo… there is only one chance to execute a technique properly…if you do it wrong, you die…”
Finally, Nakayama Sensei invited a Kenjutsu (sword) master to the dojo. Further to the samurai proverb quoted, the Kenjutsu master, after showing us different body movements, with sensei pointing out the effortless flow of his techniques, the swordsman’s comment in response to Nakayama Sensei’s question regarding drawing the sword was, “always, the first movement out of the scabbard is meant to cut, not to parry an opponent’s attack but to attack and cut with the first stroke”.
Our karate ancestors enlighten us even more: “There is no uke in karate. There is tsuki (thrusting). There is geri (kicking). There is ate (striking). But there is no uke in karate.” (Teruo Chinen). Upon further research, Chinen sensei means that uke should be thought of as attacking an attack, not just “blocking” it to prevent from being hit. Thus, uke, as it is often understood (or, more precisely, misunderstood), to Chinen sensei-does not exist.
“Defending with one arm and attacking with the other is not true bujutsu”, “… there is no such technique in real fighting as to block with the left hand and punch /thrust with the right hand” and …the blocks of true karate make it impossible for the opponent to launch a second attack.” (Motobu Choki Sensei).
Motobu sensei is stressing the real meaning of the uke in karate, that it is meant to be so strong that the attack is stopped permanently, not just block passively and then depend on a counter with the other hand.
“Use the same focus as you would in a punch or strike…it is important to feel as though you are attacking and trying to hurt with your block.” (Randall Hassell & Edmond Otis).
The block is an attack against the opponent’s strike, and not meant just to avoid being hit. The uke must be practiced until it is as powerful as the punch or strike. This illustrates the point that unless we can perform a destructive uke, we cannot expect to be successful against an opponent. We cannot depend solely on a counter attack to save our lives. The way to end the fight is to destroy the attack.
Lastly… “Once you are confident in ukeru, it is important to attack properly with full confidence and vigor however hard you are punched. Using this offensive ukeru, you can undermine your opponent and gain a winning chance.” (Enoeda Keinosuke circa 2002). Enoeda sensei is explaining that with diligent practice, the uke must do enough damage to end the confrontation. He is stressing the importance of practice in order to achieve this level of offensive ukeru.
Uke has always been called “block” in my nearly forty years in karate. Higher level black belts know that the word “uke” is short for the verb “ukeru” and that the word “ukeru” means “to receive” in Japanese. But this literal translation of the Japanese verb ukeru into “receive” and then into its most used form “uke” or “block” is deceiving and tends to gloss over and disguise, especially with younger or more inexperienced students, what an uke is really supposed to accomplish. Is “receive” the best way to translate uke or does it just complicate the idea even more than “block”? Shall we call it “clobber” or “catch” instead?
Regardless of how we translate it, at a certain time in a student’s training, the reason for the uke must be expanded upon beyond the “don’t let him hit you” concept in the usual instructional scenario. But how do we accomplish that task? And at what point in the student’s karate growth?
Shotokan teaches many techniques that can answer to a strike or kick (parrying, joint locks, throwing and take downs and other special purpose blocks (i.e. haiwan-uke, nagashi-uke, osae-uke. sukui-uke. maki-otoshi-uke and some of the double hand blocks such as morote-uke, kosa-uke/juji-uke, kakiwake-uke).
I do not deny their effectiveness – but they are not my focus. I will concentrate on the basic, closed-hand blocks, age-uke, soto-uke, and gedan barai. For these blocks, uke is Ikken Hissatsu, not just a defense against an attack, and that is what this article will discuss.
To “receive” a strike (ukeru), if practiced and understood well, should be both a protection against an initial attack in order to gain control of the situation and a means in itself to end the attack (Ikken Hissatsu).
Ideally there would be no need for a counter attack. If the initial reaction, call it what you will (block/uke/ukeru/receive), is performed effectively, in other words, attack the attack, the need to successfully counter is dramatically reduced (the second sword stays in its scabbard). Kara-Te is translated as “empty hand”, it does not mean useless hand. The student must train hard to make the uke a finishing technique.
Most of us who have trained a few years know what it feels like when someone blocks your punch or kick too hard by accident. The temptation is to dance around like stepping on hot coals while grabbing the injured area. And that is just by mistake. Imagine if there was no intent to control the block.
Does this mean we should not teach the student to counter-punch after the block? Not at all. Just as depending on the counter to finish the fight is risky, depending on the initial reaction to finish it also amounts to a bit of luck and “receiving” the attacker’s strike perfectly.
We must use all of our tools, including parrying and evasion in case you miss. To quote another of our bushido ancestors (of swords) … “you must make the fullest use of your weaponry. Not to do so, and to die with a weapon not yet drawn, is false …” (Miyamoto Musashi -Go Rin No Sho-1645).
The students paired up according to their Sensei’s instructions. “Now, this side step back into front stance and down block, other side take Yoi position.”
The students dutifully fell in line, the first side stepping back with a snappy gedan barai into zenkutsu dachi. Their opponent stood in ready stance. “At the count, side A step in and attack face level full speed. Side B step back with age uke and counter.” Side A stepped in and punched to the face while side B stepped back with a “block” and countered.
This they did five times and then switched attacking side. Adjustments were made to the attacker. “Step in stronger”, “rear foot flat on the floor”, “front knee over the big toe”, “more pull back hand”.
Sometimes instruction is given to the defender. “Step back faster”, “block higher”, “block lower”, turn the hips with your counterpunch”.
After switching legs the class moves on to another drill, perhaps a kicking drill, where the attacker steps forward with a kick and the defender steps back with a down block.
But the student stepping back and blocking the attacker is often participating as a target more than as part of a two-person drill. Corrections for the “defender” are often scarce and the objective of the “block” is often stated as simply “avoid the punch/kick, don’t let it hit you.”
In the dojo we teach our new students carefully, beginning with how to make a proper fist, how to make stance, how to stay low, bend your front knee, step in a half moon fashion, etc. and it is a very important series of classes for the new student.
When we first show them how to protect from being hit in basics or with a partner we have to have a word for it so we say “block”. It makes sense, “when the attacker steps in with a punch or kick, step back and block it”.
It is effective and allows the student to begin to learn some sort of self-defense (which is the reason many students start in karate). It works while the student is still becoming confident in the entirely new set of body movement that karate demands of us.
The student learns how to move back and forth with their “opponent” and gains experience with timing, distancing and eventually some forms of evasion or sabaki.
At about the green belt level the student needs to begin understanding that “block” does not mean defense and is not passive. Students at green belt level and above already understand what it is like to be attacked since we have them participate in the three-step and one-step partner drills.
In that respect, the common drills that have the uke coming from the person stepping back serve a good purpose as most new students have no idea what it is like to have a punch or kick thrown at them and the drills help overcome some of that fear.
During partner training, as in the scenario above, the attacker steps forward with a strike or kick and the defender steps back and blocks. All is well-the defender does not get hit or kicked. Ah but… we also show the student how to counter attack after each block so as to finish off the attacker. At the early stages of karate training the student cannot understand clearly the reason for a “block and counter” except that it makes sense to him/her since the block is used just to avoid getting hit.
They still have to counter or the attacker can just keep coming and the defender ends up continuously blocking in order to not get hit, sooner or later running out of steam and getting hit anyway, or backing themselves in a corner or falling off the proverbial cliff.
The counter attack takes care of that problem in their eyes. The drills are normally either one-step basic sparring or 3-5 step. Then the defender becomes the attacker and the exchange continues with the student until the drill ends or the partners are rotated for another exchange, everyone blocking and applying a counter punch or kick.
Drills are meant to help the student become accustomed to making gradually harder contact in order to build up the strength and stamina that hard blocking demands. The drills are not new, many dojos use them. Students should start by facing each other in pairs and in yoi position. Both students perform basic (with chambering) age uke with right arms towards each other, making contact in the middle (start easy). Immediately afterwards, both students continue into basic soto uke and make contact in the middle. Then change into basic gedan barai, and finish with uchi ude uke. Then change to the left side and perform the same series of blocks again. (See photo’s on the previous page).
Remember-start easy and light and gradually perform them stronger, paying attention to the skill level of their partner. For the serious karateka, pads can be used to allow for even harder practice. After working on basic drills for a while, gradually start aiming the blocks at specific nerve bundles/pressure points on the arm and experiment with the different levels of effectiveness (and pain) at each point.
This chart (opposite) illustrates some of the target areas that can be exploited. Students should study the chart and use the partner drills to better understand which targets have the best effect.
We need to train our students to better understand and perform the initial reaction to an attack, whether it be a punch, kick or other strike. We tell them to block harder and faster at times during their drills but other than that the blocks do not always get the attention they deserve and hence mostly fail to live up to their potential, leaving a successful end to an attack almost solely in the hands of an effective counter.
Students must understand that they are not stopping a punch or kick at its full force, even from the strongest opponent. The “block” is always at an angle that severely reduces the kick or punch’s force and yet provides excellent opportunity to attack the shin, elbow, forearm, nerve bundles, etc. In addition, well placed “blocks” can easily be attacks to the head, knees and groin.
Specific drills should be used to explain and teach a changed mindset that improves the defender’s chances of surviving an attack, not by just blocking and then counter-punching but by blocking with purpose.
This does not in any way go against the literal translation of the word uke (ukeru) as “receive”. The defender simply chooses that he/she wants to receive the strike in a manner which leads to a total destructive end to the attack rather than just avoiding getting hit. Nor does this go against Funakoshi Sensei’s dictum of “karate ni sente nashi” since the first strike is already in process or is inevitable.
Many of the drills most dojos already use can be converted easily and used to re-emphasize the potential of an immediate and devastating uke. These drills should be introduced to the student at about green belt level or certainly purple belt level when he/she should have had enough basic training to be able to understand and apply the techniques.
Kawawada sensei instructed us to always go for the weakest points on the body (for him this was always the throat) to make our strike or uke stronger saying, with a grin, “Ikken Hissatsu is easier when you choose the correct target!”).
A devastating uke must include proper form and kime, at impact, (i.e., blocking arm one fist away from the body and blocking arm side tensed and with muscle connection, tight fist or tensed hand (shuto uke), hips rotated, front leg bent and stance low, back leg locked, opposite hand withdrawn strongly, sharp exhale and “make the body heavy”).
As Sugiyama Sensei said “one has to learn to always act with the whole body when punching, kicking or blocking. If the punch, kick or block is done with the extremity only… that is not karate.”
One cannot practice Ikken Hissatsu one hundred percent when working with a partner. Very quickly we would run out of training partners and the situation would turn into a kind of dojo arashi (dojo storming), where the strongest and more advanced can continue to practice while others fade away because of injuries.
As mentioned we can control our blocks at the point of contact (same as our punches and kicks) while still concentrating on a destructive, attacking feeling (spirit first and then technique).
Note – Funakoshi Sensei prioritizes the spirit in the fifth of his twenty principles “Gijutsu yori Shinjutsu”. So how do we bridge the gap presented to us by the requirement for restraint?
Just as we teach the student to use the makiwara or bag to work on their punches and attain Ikken Hissatsu, they can take their uke to a higher level by the same practice. The student needs to attack the makiwara or bag and use one hundred percent spirit and technique. (See photo examples below).
This can be done without the same pain or injury as full contact. Again, the student should start out easy and work their way, step by step, until they are attacking full power. This training can be accomplished at the dojo and at home.
There is nothing in the verb ukeru that implies defense. It simply means that you are not the originator, rather, you are the one receiving.
The difference is in how the attack is received. Is it received only in order to set up a counter attack, or worse yet, a throw or joint lock or take down, all of which inevitably prolong the aggression (I say worse because – who really wants to go to the ground using a throw or lock with an attacker who may be stronger, younger, crazy, or on drugs?).
In other words, should you only count on the second sword? If so, luck needs to be your best friend. But can you count on luck in a fast occurring fight?
This article had at its goal not to show how to block, though proper blocking technique is important to my overall concept. Rather, I hoped to explain and convince teachers of karate to give uke more respect like our ancestors did and assimilate the “Uke As Ikken Hissatsu” concepts into their dojo curriculum.
The meaning of “ukeru or block” needs to be re-defined as an attack against a strike or kick received from an opponent. It is not simply a matter of semantics. It is an attack and should be taught as such. Not a first attack (karate ni sente nashi), but an attack nonetheless.
We still need to teach a strong counter, be it a punch or other strike or kick. And yes, at times, even the re-defined “block” will not be effective enough and we will have to also rely on a well-practiced counter attack as a back-up. However, a crushing block still gives us a better window for that counter attack.
The first goal, though, needs to be on “receiving” a punch or kick with a strong, focused, devastating attack, using powerful spirit. This means that uke is an offensive technique to put an end to the confrontation immediately, not a defensive move that forces secondary action before it is finished. It is hard to fight effectively with a defensive mindset.
If we expend the energy to block, it might as well be a strong attack. Treating the “block” as a strike (mentally) also tends to make it stronger. A fast, hard “block” has the potential to drop an opponent in his or her tracks, ending the fight before you even need to follow with second technique(s).
The opponent must feel the pain of the block throughout his entire body. The goal is not just to destroy the arm or leg but to destroy the body at its core (the trunk of the tree-not just the limb). The attacker is, for a brief moment, only interested in the strike or kick and, at that moment, he/she is open to complete destruction by a well-practiced uke.
There is no need to abandon the word “block”. But once we apply a label to a technique, it can become frozen with that idea. The philosophy and application must change as the student progresses. The longer a real fight lasts, the less chance you have of survival.
Students need to practice uke with overwhelming spirit and power, as an offensive and destructive technique meant to stop the aggressor quickly and with finality. As teachers, we owe them that training.
Author: Michael Busha – Godan ISKF/JKA Mid-America Twelve Years (Okazaki Sensei) JKA in Japan Fifteen Years (Honbu, Hoitsugan) Last Ten Years Training and Teaching at Central Illinois Shotokan Karate.
Thanks to Nakayama Sensei and Kawawada Sensei-for everything. Thanks to Sensei Brewer and Sensei Hartman for their advice and continuing support of the Pekin and Mapleton dojos and Boys and Girls Club karate. Thanks to Michael McCabe Sensei for his support and Michael McCabe Sensei and Tomoko Busha Sensei for the photos.