Matsumora’s Grasp


‘There is no first attack in karate’ means that we respond when the cause is just and the need is present.

People think that Gichin Funakoshi used the “no first attack” idea to communicate to non-Okinawans that his karate was a cultivated art, for cultivated people. The presumption was that karate and other arts from the provinces were crude, and the people who practice them were uncultured.

Perhaps Funakoshi was respectfully informing them that this was not the case.

We are familiar with the qualities and depth of karate. We understand that in addition to combative skills we cultivate qualities of character – humility and persistence, courage and collaboration – which come directly from training.

So the deeper message of “there is no first attack in karate” is more urgent for us than for skeptical non-practitioners.

Miyagi Chojun said that along with the physical skills of karate it was essential to “cultivate the mind” by understanding “There is no first attack in karate.”

Kata and kumite inform our frame of reference in traditional karate.

We cultivate body and mind. We prepare for a real situation. We focus on single combat.  We may consider Musashi’s sword fighting strategies, Takuan’s advice, or the tactics of fighters we have seen in matches, street video or movies. Our experience of violent threats will inform our training as well.

Generally what we think about when we think about fighting are the skills, tactics and the states of mind involved in the heat of the moment.

To understand “No first attack” we should include the moral valence of the encounter as well. Someone who is trying to hurt you is doing wrong. Someone trying to rob you, injure you, or commit a sexual assault, is doing wrong.  It is not just a tactical situation.

We use karate to stop immoral action directed toward us or against someone we are looking out for. That is why there is ‘no first attack.’ It is not about prohibiting pre-emptive strikes or limiting our initial response to the use of defensive techniques. It is not just a tactical message.  It defines our rules of engagement.

Winning without Fighting

Sun Tzu said: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”

Here Sun Tzu is not concerned with morality, or righteousness or justice. He was not a poet-philosopher bringing light into the world.

Sun Tzu was interested in winning. Like Machiavelli, von Clausewitz and other strategic thinkers, he served the interests of people in power. He was hired to advise his employer, a king or a prince, on how to conquer a country and how to destroy an invader.

In those days the king’s job was to expand the country. That is what kings did. They got expert advice on how to do it and they did it. It was like that in China, in Japan, in India, and elsewhere.

It is like running a corporation now. Companies are supposed to “grow.” No one questions it. It’s the CEO’s job to do that. They get expert advice on how to do it.

‘Winning without fighting’ for Sun Tzu is not about walking away, de-escalating, negotiating or somehow ‘not fighting.’ Subduing the enemy without fighting – Sun Tzu’s ‘highest skill’ – means achieving victory without expending your resources or risking your own forces. It is done with the calculated use of fear.

A big kid getting a little kid to hand over his lunch money by threatening to hit him in the nose is winning without fighting. A mafia crew extorting business owners for protection money so ‘nothing happens’ to their businesses is winning without fighting. Gangs, warlords and nations use the principles Sun Tzu described.  So do corporations, sports teams, hedge funds and gamers.

Powerful fortified cities threw open their gates, threw down their arms and submitted to Genghis Khan as he moved his massive army across the steppes because they believed the alternative to submission was massacre. That is victory without fighting. The west outspending the Soviet bloc until the Soviet collapse ended the cold war is also ‘subduing the enemy without fighting.’

That does not always work, and it does not work forever. One little kid tells the big kid he will not hand over his lunch money. The neighborhood business owners get together and find a way to tell the mob the deal’s off.  Oppressed people, against impossible odds, risk it all, and resist.  People decide they will have liberty or death. It happens.

We can apply ‘victory without fighting’ defensively. We use our karate to do it. By making ourselves strong we are less vulnerable to attack. Locking your car makes you less likely to get your stuff stolen. Training in the dojo makes you more aware and more confident. To a predator selecting a target on the street you will appear stronger, more fit and more likely to resist attack than someone who is uncertain and untrained. They will move on.

In that way you can repel an attack without making any effort, without even knowing you have done it. But that was not the ‘victory without fighting’ Sun Tzu was talking about. Sun Tzu meant conquering people and taking their stuff.

Who is Responsible

When people are subjugated they experience injustice and misery. When Okinawa was absorbed into Imperial Japan in 1879 the officials and their forces were not respectful of the Okinawan people. The men were forced into labor, women and children were abused, people were intimidated, forced to abandon their own language and way of life. The Meiji leadership did not think they were taking Okinawa from the Okinawans, they thought they were taking Okinawa from the Satsuma.

For the Okinawan people life got harder.

The Ryukyuan king was deposed. The elite lost their status and wealth.  The Okinawans did not have the power to resist and their former protectors could not help them any more.

This was the time when the founders of our styles of karate came of age. Okinawan karate was infused with new energy as a response to the injustice, indignity and threat of violence that the people faced.

One of the karate men teaching at this time was Matsumora Kosaku. He was teaching people like Choki Motobu and Chotoku Kyan, lineage holders recognized in many styles.

In pre-Meiji times, in the centuries before the 1870’s when Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan, Okinawa was a fief of the Satsuma clan as well as having a long tributary and cultural connection with China.

Nagamine Shoshin recounts the rage and frustration the people of Okinawa felt during the later days of the Satsuma occupation, as stories of rape and abuse by the occupiers reached the men of the villages. The Okinawan people were few, they were unarmed, they had no recourse to law. There was no power to whom they could appeal.

Someone had to do something.

At that time Matsumora Kosaku was training intensely in karate. He practiced daily since he was a boy, and now he was coming into manhood.  He could not accept the treatment of his people. They could not protect themselves against the swords of the samurai.

Since they had no weapons, Matsumora invented one. And he trained with it until he was proficient.

He wrapped some rocks in a length of cloth.  He practiced snapping it out from concealment, throwing it so that in an instant the rocks would circle around the hilt of a samurai’s sword, winding the length of cloth around the grip. Matsumora was able to catch a sword in mid swing and snapping the cloth back, pull the swordsman off balance.  He would use his karate from there.

It worked with his training partners in the dojo. He got real good at it.

But to make this technique work Matsumora had to get within range of the samurai’s three-foot long razor-sharp blade while it was unsheathed and positioned to strike.

As any samurai would tell you – it is difficult to stop a sword – even if you are armed, armored and trained.  Catching a sword with a rock in a towel is about impossible.

One day Matsumora was walking along the road when he came to a bridge. There he saw one of the Satsuma samurai intimidating a crowd – holding his sword over their heads, menacing them as they stood there, frozen in fear. The invader shouted at them, insulted them and threatened them. Matsumora made his way through the crowd. He stepped up close and told this guy to show some respect.

The sound of the samurai’s sword cutting through the air – the matsukaze – was about to become audible as Matsumora launched his homemade weapon, snapping it out to intercept the blow, freezing the sword in mid stroke as the samurai, shocked, tried to free his hands.

Matsumora yanked the cloth, grabbed the sword away from the samurai, and threw the sword down into the river. As he did, one of his own fingers, severed by the blade, dropped to the ground at his feet.

Matsumora was placed on the Satsuma’s most wanted list. With nine fingers he would not be hard to spot. He disappeared. The samurai disappeared too, too humiliated at the loss of his weapon to an unarmed native to seek revenge.

This act – and others later in his life – inspired people to look to Matsumora in times of crisis. They turned to him many times in the years to come.

Kyan Chotoku, Motobu Choki 

Kyan, Motobu and many other great practitioners were Matsumora’s students. They were inspired by his skill and devotion to training, but also by his life outside the dojo.

I wonder if what he did may seem small-scale to us. We have seen so many action heroes take on a thousand enemies at once and win. “The 300” took on the whole Persian army. Super heroes and Navy SEALs drop out of helicopters under fire, scale skyscrapers, escape from submarines a mile under the ocean, eject from exploding jets in the stratosphere, and things like that. The good guys win; it all seems doable; and all the tales of courage and valor and great deeds of power seem like they are just stories.

Matsumora, unarmed, facing a three foot long razor sharp steel blade, voluntarily facing his death, to protect the lives and dignity of innocent people is a model for true fighters.

Who would not want to do what he did?

The crowd Matsumora waded through to get to the samurai on the bridge that day was not made up of cowardly or stupid people. They were people who were afraid and did not know what to do.

When an active shooter is shooting up a school, when people in worship are being picked off in the pews, the victims are not stupid or cowardly. They are terrified people who do not know what to do. They need help. Who will help them?

Funakoshi Gichin understood that moral judgment is central to the health of Okinawan karate.  That is what he conveyed with “There is no first attack in karate.”

Funakoshi and Nagamine were inspired by Matsumora’s example and by his disciples, their teachers, when they were growing up.

“No first attack in karate” is not passive, and it is not reactive. It means you respond when you need to. It means duty and honor are one.  Funakoshi and Nagamine’s generation lived through the World War II years. This was the second era in which the character of the people who founded our styles was forged.

People are not predestined to be predators or prey. We are not nations or corporations.  We do not need to constantly accumulate and grow. Instead we need to deepen and refine. We are moral beings. We take care of what we value and become better ourselves as we do it. The best teachers in our lives teach this along with the skills we need to do it.

There is no first attack in karate.We respond with skill to the demands of the moment.  This principle is simple to articulate but difficult to grasp.

Post and photo by Jeff Brooks

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