Old Karate in Modern Kata

Some people say that the technical range of karate is limited to kicks, punches and blocks. Seeing kumite matches in many styles – Japanese, Okinawan and Korean – would make that conclusion seem reasonable.

Modernized Karate

As karate was modernized and popularized some styles did narrow the technical range and made it more suitable for matches and more accessible to people who wanted a sports and fitness experience rather than combative self-defense.

More Real

We can get some good self-defense skills from sports and fitness practice. Sometimes when martial artists distinguish sports and fitness karate from combative karate they value the combative approach as better and more real. Some compare sports karate and combative karate to karate-do – with its emphasis on inner spiritual cultivation – and imply that the “do” is superior or more real, the more valuable or more sophisticated path.

These value distinctions are not valid. People have different reasons for training. All three approaches – sports and fitness, practical combative, and inner cultivation – have strengths and limitations.

People do not expose themselves to the dangers of true combatives for an extended period. Kendo practitioners do not face off with steel swords. Force on force firearms training is not done with live ammunition. That is not out of weakness, or an inadequacy in the training.

Three Valid Approaches

People can use all three approaches – sport and fitness, combative and karate-do – well and benefit from them. They can use any of them poorly. Many use all three over the course of a lifetime of training and benefit from the experience.

In the old karate there were applications which are not safe to practice with a partner. They should not be done. It is useful to know about them in order to defend against them and to understand the vulnerabilities of our own body structure.

Clues to Old Karate

Clues to the old karate were retained in the kata of the modernized styles, geared more toward fitness and karate-do. The movements were retained – but often not explained, nor were the corresponding applications taught. Understanding the bunkai of the kata proves that the karate tradition was much deeper in its technical range and was more combative in nature than the modernized versions.

One piece of evidence for this is the spear-hand technique, also known as the finger-tip strike or nukite.


This is for cavity strikes and muscle seizing. It is not suitable for application to resilient structures of the body. It is probably not suited to slipping through an opponent’s crossed arms in the chaotic savagery of violent contact.

It is practical as a defensive application. It appears in our kata Pinan Shodan, Pinan Sandan, Passai, Gojushiho and elsewhere.

Pinan Shodan

In Pinan Shodan it is set up when the wrist of your right hand is grabbed by your opponent. You draw it sharply toward your chamber. The nukite is used if the opponent holds on to your wrist as you pull him toward you. This turns him 45 degrees, leaning toward you, with his arm up parallel to the ground, extended toward you, exposing his arm pit.

By rotating your fist in the chamber, as we normally do, the opponent is turned to the outside and off balanced. This will break his grip using a rotation hyper-extension of his elbow.

At that split second he is vulnerable to a cavity strike to the arm pit. The nukite fired from your right hand is designed to penetrate that narrow opening, and to penetrate more than a fist could.

The arm pit offers unprotected access to the chest cavity with no muscle or bone to protect it, when the arm is up. This is one reason why we train to keep the elbows in and shoulders down on the first half or “compression” phase of most techniques.

The nukite can be interpreted this way in Pinan Shodan. There it can naturally be followed with a muscle seizing technique, most likely applied to the pectoral muscle adjacent to the cavity. The kata has this technique followed with a hip throw, stepping 270 degrees, rotating left.

Pinan Sandan

If you attempt this nukite technique but it is blocked by the defender and the wrist of your extended arm is grabbed again, then Pinan Sandan shows you how to break the hold on your wrist, follow-up, and prevail.


In Passai the nukite is done in response to different attacks. It is applied four times.

In Passai the first two nukite strikes can target the hypoglossal nerve cavity in the throat, set up by counterpressure applied in the rolling motion below the occipital at the rear of the head. We do not make contact with this technique in training.

The third nukite follows the downward deflection of the opponent’s kick with your right arm, followed by a strike to the femoral channel to destabilize him, followed by nukite in the region of the huiyin point.  The fourth may be applied to the arm pit as above. There are multiple interpretations for this sequence.

Cavity Penetration and Seizing

This kind of cavity strike and seizing technique are not safe to practice with a training partner. We train this with kata.  This is why they were deleted from the sports and fitness martial arts training that many of us practice and benefit from.

These techniques are useful to know for self-defense application, and for the awareness of vulnerabilities of your own body structure which we need to protect.


Post and photo by Jeff Brooks author of the influential book True Karate Dō, instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC

Copyright © 2019-2023 Jeffrey Brooks


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