The Lost Art of the Frozen Hunter
By exploring our kata we discover tactics and develop skills we can use inside and outside the dojo. These insights are not evident when looking at the movement of the kata from the outside. They appear when you are inside the kata, doing it, with opponents, while investigating the movement with your intention and visualization.
Exciting work is being done around the world on the bunkai of Okinawan karate kata. But still, some of the legacy bunkai has been frozen to death. Watching it is a little like coming upon the body of an ancient hunter frozen in the ice in a mountain cave ages ago, bow and arrows still in his hands. You can see in his skin and bones, his equipment and on his face, evidence of the kind of life he lived. And you can see he is not living it anymore.
He might have a lot to teach us if we could bring him back to life. We can’t do that but we can revive the kata bunkai, and with it, kata practice.
The revival is happening. It happens when we explore. Our maps and tools are the knowledge of combatives drawn from experience and from the broad spectrum of fighting skills which have long been in use. As we rediscover the applications in kata, we improve our training methods, and deepen our combative arsenal.
This is a fruitful way to develop the “jitsu” that leads to “dō.”
There are grappling techniques throughout our kata. Joint locks, muscle seizing and muscle separation, throws, sweeps, grappling and their counters are all abundant from the very first kata we learn.
Notice that there are only three takedowns that go to the floor in all the moves of the 18 kata we practice. One in Wanshu (the same one as in Pinan Godan), and one in Chinto. Takedowns are not our primary solution.
We do a lot of throwing, and of countering attempted throws. These are used repeatedly in every kata. Their use is distinct from the controlled give and take familiar in throwing-based arts, as we are not aiming for a pin or roll out, but for a joint dislocation or ground impact.
The throws start in first kata: in the second to the third move, a 180 degree turn from a standing punch to a “down block” to the rear. This makes no sense as a “block.” It would require you to perceive an opponent behind you, anticipate his intention and turn toward him to intercept it. No one moves that way. It takes too long. However, it works seamlessly as a throw.
Defense Against Grabs and Throws
The anti-throwing techniques start in first kata too. One example, of many, comes one count before the kiai move, as we turn from the fifth direction to the sixth, from a “high block” to the reverse punch. After the opponent tries to punch you to the face and you block him by rerouting his incoming punch past your face, he continues his forward motion, immediately dropping his elbow to your chest as he steps his left foot behind yours, to trip or sweep you, by pushing you over his left leg. The kata offers a counter to this technique: we side step to contact his knee with our knee, then we quickly turn the eighth turn, forcing a bend of his knee, displacing his foot and rotating his body backward, with his back now facing us. Then we strike.
This works quickly and efficiently, without changing the kata, and with a genuine flow of combative intention and energy exchange. This move teaches a useful defensive option, and is interesting to work on, instead of just accepting this sequence as a clunky piece of choreography.
It is also good preparation for the effective and more difficult anti-throw in pinan shodan. That one is similar; it comes after the fourth shuto uke following the kiai, going into the first kosa dachi technique.
Pinan Shodan Builds on This
There are notable throws in pinan shodan. The three-quarter turn after the nukite kiai move, for example, has no practical combative meaning if it is asking you to turn 270 degrees backwards to discover a new opponent. However, if you use the sequence of “knife hand chest blacks” to stop a punch and then trap, elbow lock, and break your opponent’s balance, bending him forward – then your nukite is set up to naturally penetrate his exposed arm pit. From there you just close your hand to seize his pectoral muscle (or his gi), pull him down to your side with your right arm and pin his head to your chest with your left, as you step back and throw, using the three-quarter turn. The move works, it makes sense, and you have a technique you can use.
Pinans Start by Countering Grappling
The initial moves of the five pinan kata can be used as defenses against standard attacks used in grappling arts. Our quick response is designed to disrupt and counter them – ideally before the grab is fully locked on, but they work even if the grab is completed. Some can be applied to a punch from the front. But defending against a single front punch to the middle of the body without a follow up in not a good tactical choice, since it does not end the threat. It is useful to explore beyond that.
For the first move of Pinan Shodan your wrist and shoulder are seized by your opponent, who attempts to step in behind our left leg for a reaping sweep and throw. We do the first move of Pinan Shodan, simultaneously closing the distance, breaking his hold and then, with the drop and pivot breaking the opponent’s balance and body architecture. Then, in our kata we strike down on the proximate target – the back of his neck (most likely but it could be to the thumb tendons of his wrist as he attempts to seize your wrist) – destabilizing the opponent’s body architecture and continuing with the right-hand punch, as the decisive finishing technique. This interpretation is one of many god and valid ones, but it is an effective one and it matches the kata.
We Counter the Intention of the Attacker – Not Just Techniques
Our grappling counters work naturally in dynamic situations – where the attacker is moving aggressively, seizing, attempting to destabilize us, and positioning for a throw. In the unlikely event that an assailant grabs your wrist and shoulder and stands there looking at you, a well-focused fist, a foot or knee to a vital target might be adequate resolve the threat.
But in the continuum of motion you will need to reposition to disrupt the flow of his intended attack. The first moves of all the pinan kata use a flanking movement to the opponent’s left side to accomplish this.
First Move Release
For Pinan Nidan (comparable to Shotokan’s Heian Shodan) our interpretation assumes that you would not be standing still in a formal yoi position while an aggressor is putting his hands on you. Reasonable. However, we do include the yoi position in our interpretation of the move. If you were in a fighting position, with your guard up, ready to strike and defend, hands in front of your chest and face, it may happen that an opponent will grab your front wrist, or knock it down, attempting to jab over it, or attempt a throw by hanging on to it, by pulling you, stepping back, sinking, locking your arm against his body, hyperextending your elbow, and rotating out.
Yoi as a Part of a Continuum for Interpretation
In that case we can use the yoi position of the fist as a pass-through from the position you were in when you wrist was grabbed. With your hands in front of your chest – you drop your grabbed arm through the straight down arm position as shown in yoi. By circling that arm back up to your opposite shoulder, as the kata has it, you bring your wrist on top of his for a wrist release. If he hangs on that also bends the opponent forward, his head bent close to you, and takes him off his balance for a split second. Before he recovers his balance, your hammer fist stuns to the temple or other opportune target. The next move, the step in and punch, is the finishing technique.
We use the series of three “high blocks” as a stop, trap and throw sequence. It works, without changing the kata at all. The alternative – that the opponent is walking backwards while trying to punch you in the face three times and then, after the third attempt runs away, is a suboptimal interpretation of this kata sequence.
“Repeated” “Defensive” Techniques
The same kind of interpretation applies to the double and triple knife hand “chest blocks” in Pinan Shodan, and similar sequences which appear repeatedly in all of our kata through Kusanku.
The first move of Pinan Sandan works naturally against contact to the chest: a grab of the gi at the lapel to set up a throw or to pull you into a punch, or an attempt to shove you back by pushing your chest. (The first move of Pinan Sandan can work against a punch from the front too, but not as well, even if your technique turns him, because it leaves the opponent standing in front of you and free to move when you are dropped into a low stance, while your next move in the kata does not apply readily to anything you would want to do with an intact, aggressive opponent instantly following up.)
In Pinan Sandan, when the opponent grabs your gi at the center of the chest, or pushes your chest back, we step towards him as we pin his contact arm against our chest, immobilizing it as you step toward him. That’s the first half of the “chest block” at the beginning of the kata. His head falls forward as you move. The second half of the “chest block” happens as you drop and pivot. It functions as a backfist to the temple, (or to the side of the neck as a brachial stun, or to the mandibular angle, whichever head-target comes into the line of the attack.) This works very well and matches the moves of the kata.
That’s just a quick sample of the way we understand these moves and how we train with them.
We use the seizing and grappling moves to release an opponent’s hold, to break an opponent’s balance, and to create an opportunity to counterattack while he is unbalanced.
Those are three components of one defensive tactic. They are designed to end the threat. If we need to continue our defense, then we do, using the same combative premise: prevent the grab or reroute the incoming punch, destabilize the opponent and follow up with a decisive strike.
The kata teach this sequence when an opponent’s power is projected toward us. That is when we are the “uke,” meaning when we are receiving incoming energy from the attacker.
When we are projecting power there is another aspect of tactics that are shown in the kata: which is to instantly fill the void or cover the gap in defense created by our power projection.
Our Fukyugata Ni trains us to be alert for the weak points created in any move or posture that we use, and teaches us how to defend against an able opponent’s exploitation of that suki. When our hands are high, as they are after the first and fourth move, the attack comes in low. We train to defend that suki, by immediately dropping into a low defense to counter.
When we are fully extended to the front, as in the zenkutsudachi gedan zuki, we are vulnerable from the rear – to a bear hug applied by an unseen opponent pinning our arms to our sides from the rear in an attempt to thrown us down; or, in the same move, we may be subject to an attack to the Achilles tendon, exposed and extended behind us.
We learn to defend against both of those possibilities, using the next move in the kata, and to exploit the new opportunity which we set up. Toward the end of the kata, when we are extended high in a shizentai dachi with a knife hand extended, our opponent may drop under our strike and instantly try a tackle. Our posture is susceptible to that attack – (as in rock-paper-scissors, in kumite, everything is susceptible to something.)
Our solution, as shown in the next move of the kata, is to pivot back out of range into a new zenkutsudachi, dropping low and long for stability, as we reroute his reaching arms with a “chest block” and follow up with a strike to his jaw or head. That’s all a precise interpretation of the movement in second kata. It is a brilliant kata (designed by Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi.) It’s potential for practical combative skill is sometimes overlooked.
Our Objective is not Submission or Arrest
We do not apply restraint holds, submission techniques or pain compliance techniques to complete a defense in our kata. We do not take an opponent to the ground to pin or immobilize them. Our kata are designed to train us for defensive combatives, not competition, not arrest, not assault.
Our Objective is to Stop the Threat
Karate is interpreted in ways which are inconsistent with what is taught in the kata. This may be in some cases because the kata’s tactical doctrine is not understood.
In karate kumite for example, karateka sometimes face off like boxers. But the kata do not teach boxing, or kick boxing. Inspired by jujitsu, MMA and other sports, other karateka clinch and go to the ground. You may be in that situation and it is good to train to deal with whatver you may face.
For defensive purposes it is worth considering the disadvantages of deliberately getting off your feet, the drawbacks of trying to roll out of a hold or a choke, when the ground is paved, when a second or third attacker is present, with curbs, vehicles, broken glass, bricks, roots, structures and debris in the area. Going to the ground may be a useful tactic to effect an arrest, to pin and restrain a resisting subject. But for personal self-defense this strategy may not be the best way. As I mentioned above, it is rare in our kata; that is unlikely an oversight.
Means of Attack
People are attacked in lots of unexpected ways – a punch to the back of the head, an intimidating approach, a weapon presented at close range. But currently many real-world encounters reflect the grab, hold and take down tactics of current martial culture. People learn it, and they see it done in matches, videos and entertainment. Grappling arts were also predominant when the karate kata were devised; they were devised to include defense against the grappling arts.
Military Doctrine Reflects and Reinforces Popular Trends in Personal Defense
Military hand to hand doctrine has tracked with the evolution of martial arts ideas. This trend is relevant to what individuals – professional or individual – may encounter. At one time boxing was predominant. When the Marine Corp Martial Arts Program was under development, Okinawan karate had a strong influence.
Currently the Army prioritizes grappling for new soldiers. Army manual STP 21-1-SMCT, Warrior Skills, Level 1, outlines a baseline approach which will be familiar to many martial artists, in and out of the military.
071-000-0006 React to Man-to-Man Contact
1. Achieve the clinch.
Note: Controlling a standup fight means controlling the range between fighters.
The untrained fighter is primarily dangerous at punching range. The goal is to
avoid that range. Even if you are the superior striker, the most dangerous thing
you can do is to spend time at the range where the opponent has the highest
probability of victory.
a. Close the gap and achieve the clinch.
(1) Start from a fighting stance outside of the kicking range.
(2) Tuck in your chin and use the arms to cover the vital points of
(3) Aggressively close the distance.
(4) Place your head to the opponent’s chest and your cupped hands to
the opponent’s biceps.
(5) Aggressively fight for one of the following dominant clinch positions
…then attempt a takedown to the ground
…then achieve dominant body position, guard, mount or side
…then finish using chokes, arm bar…
We Defend Against This Approach
It matches the approach of Okinawan sumo wrestling and contemporary grappling arts. It also fits into the trajectory of a combative encounter as fighters use up their initial burst of ATP energy and begin to grab and restrain the opponent. Our traditional kata include defense against this.
To defend against it successfully requires high skill and a level of aggression, to be cultivated in training.
To defend against a strong boxer, a dedicated sport fighter, or someone enraged or intoxicated, desperate for drugs or insane, whether they are on their feet delivering a barrage of strikes, closing the distance for a tackle, grapple or throw, attempting to get their arms to your neck or their hands to your throat – that is our training challenge.
We will be better prepared to meet it if we recognize that our kata techniques give us practical solutions to deadly combative problems.
It is not tactically sound to try to pull an incoming punch out of the air and try to hang on to it while you throw. It is not sound training to stand at arm’s length, bounce and parry. Instead, up close and quick, even as we dodge or feint, inside the combative range, we reroute the opponent’s strike or release the opponent’s hold, break the opponent’s balance, stun to open a target, and counter decisively.
That is the key defensive tactic in our kata. It is optimal for rapid resolution of a violent threat.
Post by Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate Dojo, Saluda, NC. He is the author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts and The Rhinoceros Tale – Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.
Post copyright © 2021 Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate Dojo, LLC
Training Photo US Army
Featured Image – Leslie Jones, detail