Karate ni sente nashi?


There is an old debate that has been raging in karate for years.  As my friend Ryan Parker says, it really has its genesis in the philosophical (among other) disputes between the two karate masters who first brought karate to Japan: Gichin Funakoshi and Choki Motobu.

Almost every karateka knows Funakoshi's famous "golden rule": "Karate ni sente nashi" - there is no first "attack" in karate ("sente" literally means "initiative" - in this case "aggressive initiative").

Many karateka also know Choki Motobu's response: "Karate is sente" - in other words karate is about (aggressive) initiative.

So who was right?  My answer is: both of them!  If this seems weird, stay with me.

A little bit of background

Motobu was a practical fighting man.  Funakoshi manifestly was not.  If you haven't, read this article by (the always fabulous) Jesse Enkamp and you'll get a feeling for what kind of fighter Motobu was - and how different Funakoshi was in this respect.

However does Funakoshi's "less physical" nature/skill mean that he was wrong on the question of karate and "sente"? I don't think so.

Yes, on some levels Funakoshi might well have been guilty of the charge levelled by Motobu:
“He [Funakoshi] can only copy the masters elegance by performing the outer portion of what they taught him.”
Similarly, in saying his famous "karate ni sente nashi" Funakoshi might well have been simply repeating a form of words taught to him by his teachers.

But none of this means that the form of Funakoshi's movement - or that the words he uttered - were wrong.

Rather, I think they still reflect a deep philosophical and practical truth arising from the "wisdom of the ancients".  (It is worth observing that "karate ni sente nashi" is clearly a direct extension of the Daoist concept of wu-wei inherent in all budo - ie. initiating aggression only as a regrettable necessity.) The fact that Funakoshi wasn't personally a "fighting man" doesn't mean he didn't preserve elements of that wisdom - just as the fact that Motobu was successful as a street fighter doesn't imply that he preserved all the elements of that wisdom.

The heart of the issue

Let's get back to the real issue - what we mean by "sente".  The question has more recently been expressed on a Facebook thread as:
"Is karate a defensive art or a pre-emptive art?
When I read this, I couldn't help but feel that the question was misconceived - primarily because it assumes false premises:

First of all, "defence" has never implied a lack of "aggressive initiative". After all, we happily talk about our "defence forces" without imagining soldiers "armed" only with "shields and helmets".  We understand that the tactics used by our "defence forces" entail necessary force.  This might include deadly force.  Indeed, it could include pre-emptive attack (perhaps leading to the use of deadly force).  Put simply, "defence" means you do whatever is reasonably necessary to repel an attack.

In a similar vein, defence certainly does not mean "wait for your attacker to strike first". I've covered this previously in the context of "blocks": this whole line of reasoning attacks a straw man.  There is no doctrine in the traditional martial arts of "waiting" for anything and there never has been. 

In other words, you can be defending and hit first (ie. pre-empt - or "seize initiative immediately"). Alternatively, you can be defending in the form of having to respond defensively to an attack before you counter (a "late initiative").  It all depends on what options are actually open to you!

So the question is not whether "karate is about defence" - because it manifestly is! It sure as heck wasn't designed for use in, say, attacking innocent civilians! It wasn't designed for warfare or for attacking someone to score points or knockout in a ring.
It was designed for civilian defence.
And, the question isn't about whether karate was primarily designed to seize initiative immediately vs respond with late initiative - because I hold it to be manifestly true that it was designed for both.  There will be times for both, depending on what options are open to you.

If one accepts the above, to me, the more significant question (ignored by both Motobu and Funakoshi adherents alike) is this:
How do "seizing initiative immediately" and "responding with late initiative" manifest in effective civilian defence?
When to seize initiative immediately

In this regard I think Motobu got it right: karate - like all civilian defence arts - is ideally about pre-empting.  And if it isn't about pre-empting, it is, at the very least, about the earliest interception of an attack.  In other words, Motobu was absolutely correct (showing his ability as a practical fighter) when he said:
"Karate is sente."
"One must always try to block the attack at its source."
"The blocking hand must be able to become the attacking hand in an instant."
These are certainly ideals for which a fighter must strive.

But ideals and reality are two very different things.  Karate deals with the latter - in its physical, legal and ethical/social forms.

Consider that when it comes to pre-empting, you can't go around hitting people prematurely.  If you do, you become an attacker (logically, legally and morally), not a defender.

I've lost count of the number of times I might have hit someone (to avoid the chance he might strike me) who was angrily remonstrating with me. To be sure of pre-emption, I would have had to strike in each instance. I am so glad I didn't. There is a moral/ethical, legal and logical imperative that prevents us from pre-empting all attacks.  I cover this in my articles "Strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir!" and  "Reasonable and necessary force".

Once again, this does not mean that you have to "wait" for an attack.  If you can tell that an attack is going to happen, by all means pre-empt it!  But to imagine that you will be able to manage conflict (particularly in a civilised society) with some sort of "pre-emptive formula" is nothing short of pure fantasy for logical as well as ethical/legal reasons.  (It is also largely fantasy when it comes to logistical factors - as I'll explain in a minute.)

So much for pre-empting.  What about "early interception" (ie. at the source, using your blocking hand as a simultaneous strike, etc.)?  Again, this is a very noble and worthwhile ideal - Motobu was "spot-on": why leave an interception to the very last millisecond?  It makes no sense at all!  The earlier you can intercept an attack, the better.

But again, reality intrudes: I have spoken previously about the issues inherent in "surviving a surprise attack", in particular the fact that by the time most people (even trained fighters) have the chance to react in a civilian defence scenario, the attack is at least 80% of its way towards them, leaving as little as 0.2 s to do something.  This typically doesn't permit "early interception at the source".  (It also makes a mockery of any "pre-emptive formula".)

What serious attackers want: to take you out

I know that my statement above will offend some people, in particular those who build their arts around the idea that they will always be able to either pre-empt or simultaneously defend and counter.  But simple physics doesn't agree with them.  Nor, for what it's worth, does my experience in prosecuting assaults.

Yes, I know that many invest what they consider a great deal of time and effort in "situational awareness" training - hoping that they will be able to "pick up all the cues" to an imminent assault so as to facilitate their chosen ideology of "always seizing the initiative immediately" (whether by pre-empting or by the earliest possible interception).

But the truth is that, at least with the very first attack, this is a fantasy.  Why?  Because serious attackers don't generally go around announcing their intention. If they do, they are idiots.

Personally, I am more concerned about those attackers who mean to take you out - in the nastiest way possible.  These attackers don't mean to "fight" you.  They don't do the "push and shove" (what Rory Miller calls the "monkey dance").  They don't give you any such "warning".  They do their best to stack the odds against you as much as possible.  This involves minimising your chances of ascertaining intention sufficient to pre-empt or intercept early.

What karate teaches

Karate teaches us more about surviving that first (surprise) attack than most people realise. Why? Because you have to survive an attack before you can go on to seize initiative.  Survival is your first aim!  All your best-laid plans come to nothing if that first attack takes you out.

So when Funakoshi said "karate ni sente nashi" I think he was "spot-on": those words reflect the reality that, as defenders rather than attackers, we generally don't go around hitting people first - for two reasons:
  1. As a defender you aren't in the business of attacking people for no good reason.
  2. Attackers don't generally like to give away their intention, or otherwise let you thwart their plans to hurt you.  That, after all, is their raison d'etre.  How unsurprising!
How does karate teach you to survive that first (surprise) attack?  It teaches you to respond by using a modified flinch reflex.  This skill in response is often misleadingly called "defensive".  But, as I've said "defence" is actually a much wider term.  Whatever you call that skill, it is as essential as it is powerful.  I've covered this in my article "The power of defence".

For those who think that Motobu would disagree, think again.  Motobu's skill in defence was nothing if not sublime.  Consider this account related by Patrick McCarthy Hanshi in Part 2 of his article "On Choki Motobu":
There is an interesting story about Motobu that Konishi (a senior student of Funakoshi who later affiliated himself with Motobu) passed on that I would like to share with you. While Konishi was still taking lessons from Funakoshi Sensei, “Piston” Horiguchi (Japanese featherweight champion in 1933-34, 1942, and again in 1948) joined his dojo to study kendo and karate. One day, an elderly and liverish man dropped by the dojo to see Konishi and struck up a conversation with Horiguchi. During the conversation the elderly man gave some advice to Horiguchi, and, in order to substantiate the point, invited the boxer to “punch him.” With permission of Konishi, Horiguchi tried to punch the old fellow. Despite his “piston-like” strikes he failed to land even one punch on the old guy and finally gave up. Exhibiting cat-like body movement, the old guy as no other than Motobu Choki.
But let us not forget that karate equally teaches us the tactics of which Motobu spoke: pre-emption, early interception etc.  When do these get used?  For the rest of the altercation!

Having survived a surprise attack, you not only can but you should go on to use the parts of karate that teach us to seize initiative.  We learn to do this every time we throw an uchi (strike), zuki (thrust), geri (kick) and even yes, even uke (block/interception).  Bunkai are full of such applications.  So Motobu was indeed "spot-on": karate is sente!

I have previously illustrated this with the "Turkish boxer case study".  You'll notice that the boxer is initially overwhelmed, forcing him to duck, weave and dodge his attacks, and only then counter.  Once he's established enough control (and the fight is well underway) he can both intercept early and (finally) pre-empt attacks with his own.  He waits for nothing.  For him, the beginning was "ni sente nashi".  But the conclusion was "sente".


In an upcoming article I hope to illustrate precisely the difficulty inherent in "seizing initiative" against a strong, determined opponent.  I will do so using the very environment in which most people think "response" has little to no role: the MMA cage.  I will illustrate my example by reference to the common way fighters are forced (through the logistics of response times) to deal with a kick to the thigh (thanks Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman!).

But for now I'll conclude by saying the following:

To me, Motobu was talking about the desirability of pre-emption/proactivity wherever possible. And to this extent he was absolutely correct: hitting someone first is logically better than hitting second. Controlling someone early is better than trying to control them late.  (Take a look at this account of Motobu's view of pre-emption/proactivity as related by Jesse-san!)

By contrast, I think Funakoshi was talking about the fact that karate was meant for defence - of self and others - not for initiating aggression against others. Again, to this extent he was absolutely correct.

The two masters meet in the middle when you consider that most civilians don't (and realistically shouldn't and logistically can't) go around hitting people first - or even early: that most of the time, they are forced into response (at least initially) when defending - regardless of the desirability of pre-emption / early interception.  After establishing control however, every imperative dictates that they should maintain this control - ie. seize the initiative.  If you have the initiative from the start, so much the better.  Just don't count on it.

[See: Responses to "karate ni sente nashi".]

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic