Karate is an anti-grappling art. Of course we learn to strike – with hands and feet, elbows and knees and other parts of the body – as our go-to way to stop a threat. But at the initial contact point much of what we are learning to do is to stop a grappling attack.
People grapple because that’s what they learned to do – in wrestling and other grappling and throwing arts, or by watching them. It is natural – we grab and hold on. People who herd animals use their hands to control them. People learn and see boxing and kick boxing and other striking arts too and use them. But as fighters lose energy, after a minute of full power punching and kicking, they begin to clinch, hold on, restrain, wrestle and attempt to take their opponent down.
The first move in all the Pinan and Heian katas makes sense against a grappling attack. The first move of pinan sandan and godan can also be used against an incoming strike, but none of the others make sense that way.
The most straightforward and practical interpretations of pinan sandan do not include defenses against a punch anywhere in the kata, and kicks just twice. We punch and strike to counter, as finishing techniques. Pinan sandan teaches effective anti-grappling techniques, throwing counters, and lock-releasing techniques, from beginning to end. The influence of Okinawan sumo is evident.
One of the most practical bunkai solutions in fukyugata ni show that Miyagi Chojun was teaching how to oppose and defeat the kind of tackling attempts that are commonly executed in wrestling and modern grappling systems.
In fukyugata ichi Nagamine Shoshin put his judo experience to work in showing karateka how to respond to an incoming grab with a lock and throw, or how to counter a reaping throw. (If in fact he intended the kata to have practical bunkai applications. It is not clear that he did, but we can interpret it as having them throughout.)
The splitting moves and knee lifts, especially when used together – in rohai, passai and the naihanchi katas – only make sense against a grappling attack, and there they are extremely effective. The hand technique plus knee lifts in wankan, wanshu and gojushiho makes sense when interpreted this way too. A knee lift can block a kick, but used simultaneously with the hand techniques they don’t make much sense.
The sequences of two, three or four knife hand shuto techniques have no real application against two or three or four punches in a row. They work very well as a series beginning with an intercept and re-routing block, a lock, followed by a throw or dislocation or take down.
The follow up to the nukite kiai move in pinan shodan is one of many of our techniques which show that we are grappling as well, not just striking – in this case by using a muscle-seizing technique – followed by a throw. We are not only learning to parry and strike.
No one with experience outside the dojo would assume you could pull an assaultive opponent’s punch out of the air and manipulate it while they are fully energized and attacking. But if they attempt to grab us as they trained to do or attempt to clinch as they are tiring out, we can.
Most of the key applications in the kata are repeated on the opposite hand, so we can learn them to the right and to the left. It follows from this that the kata are not unified sequences only to be analyzed as if they were a single, continuous interaction. Analysis of a one, two or three step response to an attack; insight into responding to a vulnerability that may arise from that defense, or a vulnerability that arises from a successful counter to that defense; followed by another response sequence. These sequences can start anywhere in the kata and sometimes yield new results based on the context of previous move, subsequent move, and insight into the opponent’s intention in each move.
Our art was called te, 手, Hands. Hands do a lot of things. One of them is make fists. But that is only one. Our art was not called chuan fa, 拳法, fist law. There are such styles, very valid, very good, but the one we are practicing is not merely an art of fists. It is an art of hands, in all forms. As we analyze and explore the applications of the moves in the kata these perspectives are useful.
Post and photo by Jeffrey Brooks, copyright © 2022
Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC, 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.