Karate - Budo  
  The key features and principles for understanding karate  


  >> Stage karaté Vincenzo Figuccio 19-21 mai - Belgique english français
  Styles of karate
  Aims of karate
  Kihon, kata, kumite
  Physical principes
  Aggression and stress
  Kumite in pratice
  Dangerous spots
  Japan, Buddhism & Zen
  Karate and emptiness
  The book
    Shotokan kata
    Shitoryu kata
    Goju-ryu kata
    Takedown & MMA
    Physical training



1.Fights for Survival or Parrying

Parrying is a scenario in which two individuals try to impose their superiority. It is a type of fighting that is frequently found in the animal world as a way of designating the chief of a group or the breeding male. It is not generally designed to seriously injure the opponent. Competitive kumites are considered a form of parrying.

Fights for survival are common among different animal species, for example between a zebra and lion or a wolf and a sheep. In contrast, this type of fighting is rare between animals of the same species. Unfortunately, humankind, with its wars and murders, is the exception to this rule.

The strategies and techniques employed must be tailored to the particular type of combat. In competitive kumite, the vital points (except for those that are less dangerous) are avoided. Moreover, the strikes are controlled on pain of disqualification. The techniques used are very simple and few in number. The aim is often to work on one’s explosiveness and speed in order to surprise the opponent and score a point before retreating a safe distance and avoiding being countered.

Contrariwise, in a fight for survival, the vital points are targeted and strikes are launched at full power. Naturally, no rules are applicable and any object can be used. Survival situations are a part of martial karate. Kata applications belong to self-defence scenarios and close combat situations that are very useful in a fight for survival.


2. Engagement Distance (maai)

The engagement distance between two “opponents” is a key feature:

  • It can be long, in which case it is called a “safe distance”. Your opponent cannot directly touch you; he or she needs to take at least two steps to reach you;
  • It can be medium, i.e. the opponent needs one step to reach you;
  • It can be short, in which case it is termed hand-to-hand fighting.

 The techniques must be adapted to suit the distance. When fighting at long distance, the individual often takes a step forward to break the safe distance. This step is typically coupled with a feint attack (e.g. kisami tsuki or hiza geri) which can also serve as protection. One or more attacks are then initiated as you advance. The techniques are often the same at medium distance but are employed directly without a forward step. At close distance, the techniques have to be tailored: enpi, ura tsuki, hiza geri, holds, locks, sweeps, throws, etc.

The distances must be adjusted according to the opponent and your ability.
If your opponent is a specialist in judo or muay thai, it is probably better to choose a long distance (strikes followed by a rapid return to a safe distance).
If your opponent is very quick, a long distance can sometimes be useful to give yourself the time to react and plan your counter-attack.

If your opponent is tall, it is better to work at close quarters (at mid-distance or hand-to-hand) to avoid being within reach without being able to fight back. In addition, long arms or legs prove to be a handicap at short distance.

If your opponent is heavy and powerful, it is better to work at long distance, strike quickly and retreat immediately. There is, however, no absolute rule, and the idea is to take account of your opponent, as well as your habits and skills.


3. Moves

At safe distance, it is often easy to block one or two blows. This becomes more complicated when three or four attacks are mounted in succession. The work of a uke is further complicated if the tori works on different levels: jodan, chudan and gedan, and if he or she varies the type of strike: tsuki, geri, enpi, hiza, etc.
As a corollary, although it is important for the tori to launch different types of attacks on several levels, it is crucial for the uke to slip, block and counter the opponent almost simultaneously so as not to be overwhelmed. In a “go no sen” mind-set, the uke must consider counter-attacking rather than blocking. In a “sen no sen” mind-set, the uke must anticipate the attack. The counter-attack and blocking must be simultaneous and succeed before the tori has had the time to develop his or her attack.


4. Surprise Attacks and Feints

A fraction of a second is often the only difference between a winning blow and a losing blow. Accordingly, it is useful to:
— Take advantage of the slightest distraction or loss of balance of your opponent (for example, on hearing a noise, or by pushing your opponent towards a step or throwing something, etc.);
— Simulate an attack (for example, in kizami tsuki or hiza geri) to slow down the uke’s reaction or to open a breach in the defence;
— Distract or unbalance the uke with an ashi barai before attacking.
It is up to each individual to find his or her own favourite attacking moves, possibly coupled with a feint or destabilising manoeuvre. These should be as smooth and quick as possible as well as being natural and, above all, continuously repeated until they become automatic reflex actions that can be applied in stressful situations.


5. Moves and Slips

Attacks are very often carried out whilst advancing, and defensive moves whilst retreating in a straight line. By withdrawing quickly in this way, the uke generally manages to position him or herself at a safe distance. However, in this situation it will be very difficult to mount an effective counter-attack. To avoid this, the uke can practice side slips (tai sabaki). As a result, they will end up near the tori, either on the outside or inside of the attack. The uke can then quickly mount a counter-attack with his or her fists or feet. It should be noted that outside slips will put a uke in a safer position because the opportunity for tori moves will be more restricted. Furthermore, this position provides advantageous angles of attack for the uke (e.g. a fumikomi to the knee, an ura tsuki on the axillary side of the lower ribs, a shuto on the submandibular angle, a haito to the larynx or a mawashi tsuki to the temple, etc.). These side slips make it possible to launch a counter-attack whilst the tori is still in the process of advancing, thereby multiplying the effectiveness of the attack.

Quick moves back and forth must also be worked on with or without a slip. This drill will help the uke to surprise the tori before the latter has the time to withdraw. To succeed in this, the uke must be committed to forging ahead, especially when stepping back in order to block. This may result in the body weight being mainly centred on the front leg, with the knee bent above the toes. In this way, the uke will be able to advance very quickly to make a counter-attack.

Another option is for the uke to slightly absorb the attack in order to counter-attack almost simultaneously whilst remaining very close to the tori.

Practising distances, slips and moves is not necessarily natural. They must be worked on and repeated until they become feelings and reflexes that can be used in stressful situations.

The height of the art is achieved in sen no sen: anticipating the toris attack. At the very moment that the tori begins his or her attack, the uke advances by blocking and counter-attacking simultaneously (e.g. in the Pinan bunkai or Heian yondan, the kosa uke may be a gedan barai with simultaneous tsuki to counter a mae geri as it is being aimed).


6. Muscle Relaxation, Kime and Kiai

Combat is a stress situation that instinctively prepares the body for physical exertion: adrenaline and corticosteroid are secreted, and there is an increase in the heart and breathing rate, blood pressure, body temperature, etc.

Paradoxically, it is important that the mind and “heart” (kokoro) remain calm and focused. This should result in the muscular relaxation essential for executing rapid movements. Indeed, the simultaneous contraction of agonist and antagonist muscles is likely to slow down movement. Muscle relaxation increases the speed of a blow and its kinetic energy.

By contrast, on the moment of impact it is important to contract the body in order to avoid it being “crushed” and impacted on the opponent’s body (by, for example, drawing back the shoulder or hyper flexing the wrist). The tori’s body must become an indeformable and inelastic object at the moment of impact. In this way all the tori’s kinetic energy will be transferred to the uke. This contraction of the body is often equated to the kime that is an integral part of karate.

The kiai helps to obtain a good kime. It is reflected physically in a noise, the sound of expiration coming from a contraction of the abdominal muscles that help to tone, rigidify, control and stabilise the tori’s body on impact.


7. Timing

The timing of body movements is paramount in karate, because it boosts the kinetic energy of a blow by increasing the mass and speed. So, in gyaku tsuki, the twisting of the hips and trunk, the extension of the elbow and the rotation of the fist must all reach completion at the same time, i.e. on impact, so that the speed of the punch is greatest at that exact moment.

In the opposite case, if (for example) the hips finish rotating before impact, although the movement means it is possible to go further, it does not increase the speed of the punch. Indeed, at the time of impact the rotational speed of the hips is zero.

For the same reasons, the fist must be rotated on completion of the elbow extension movement. In the opposite case, the rotation does not increase the speed of the punch on impact. In addition, the muscles used when extending the elbow with the fist in supination are more powerful. To see this for yourself, try to push your partner starting from the hikite with your fist in supination and in pronation. This demonstration speaks for itself: the power, and therefore the potential acceleration, is significantly greater when the fist stays in supination until the last moment.

Here is another example: during the gyaku tsuki chudan, with the fist at a slight angle and pointing downwards, a minor bending of the anterior knee at the moment the blow is struck increases the speed and mass under the effect of gravity.

Here is a final example: during an oi tsuki going forward in a zenkutsu dachi, timing is paramount. The fist must reach its target a fraction of a second before the front foot hits the ground: the force of the fist will then be far greater on impact. To see for yourself, take up the zenkutsu stance with your arm extended in oi tsuki by pressing the kentos on a wall. At this point, raise your front foot very slightly from the ground and feel the significant rise in pressure on the kentos. Once again, the experience speaks for itself.

These analyses and thoughts can be applied to all karate moves to try and further your understanding…
Now it’s your turn to try!