Responses to "karate ni sente nashi"


I've had two main "contrary" responses to my "Karate ni sente nashi?" article:
  1. "That's all very interesting, but I prefer this article..." (which goes on to detail exactly why and how karate is compatible with pre-emptive striking).
  2. "I don't have time for your theories - I hit first and hard and that works for me."
I thought I'd address both of these as succinctly as I can.

The first objection

It never ceases to amaze me how many people read "karate ni sente nashi" as some sort of rigid "rule" - then proceed to run through all the reasons why the "rule" can't work.

You'll note that in my article I didn't spend any time trying to describe the sorts of situations where one can and should "attack first".  Why?  Because it's obvious that myriad such potential situations exist!  Why waste the time discussing this?

I think the reason people incline to such (irrelevant) analysis arises from the notion that "karate ni sente nashi" is a rigid "rule".  However it was never intended to be such a thing.  Rather, the maxim attempts to describe an ethic.  I'll let my friend and university lecturer Jeff Mann explain it, for he does it far better than I can:
Motobu is talking about the physical exchange of karate, while Funakoshi is describing the character of the karateka.
I think a lot of the misunderstanding of this issue, and the false choice that some people feel we are required to make, neglects to perceive that. I think it is also magnified in the different ways that Westerners and East Asians look at ethics. (I know that looks like fertile ground for some serious overgeneralizations, but bear with me.)
In the West, we are quite fond of Deontological Ethics, that is, ethics based on absolute moral rules. A rule is given (e.g. in the 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule, Kant's Categorical Imperative) and the morally right thing to do is to follow that rule to the letter. In the East, a much more dominant ethical theory is Virtue Ethics. Here, people are less concerned with rules to follow, and much more concerned with the character of the one acting. The morally virtuous person is not one who follows ethical rules strictly, but acts with virtue. He or she embodies patience, courage, filial piety, magnanimity, giri, prudence, fortitude, or whatever particular virtues your community emphasizes. (Yes, there are Virtue Ethics in the West, with folks like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas; and there is a little deontology in the East. But I'm talking about emphases.)

Back to karate. When Funakoshi taught Karate ni sente nashi, I think he was describing the character of the karateka - one who does not seek out or instigate violence. He was describing a virtue. Westerners, with their love of absolute moral rules, picked that up and made it gospel truth. "Never attack first!" Eventually, people realized the problem with that ironclad rule, as you explain very well in your article. Motobu then, in his typically iconoclastic way, turns the principle upside down to make an important point - and one that seems to have been an important principle in his karate.
In much the same way people (wrongly) assume that the related Daoist maxim "wu-wei" (not doing) is intended as an instruction ("take no action").  It does not.  Rather it describes an ideal state where "where nothing is done, yet everything is achieved".

It seems to me that many people are so caught up with certain base assumptions (eg. that something translated from Chinese or Japanese into English has the exact meaning we would give that expression in the West) that they never pause to consider the validity of those assumptions.

What ensues is a whole lot of discussion about a non-issue - to reach a conclusion that should be obvious.  "Karate ni sente nashi" does not comprise rule.  And the fact that karate is compatible with a first strike in certain instances is as true as it is unremarkable.  Making this point repeatedly and illustrating it with examples does nothing more than attack a straw man.

The second objection

I thought I'd made a perfectly reasonable argument in my previous article as to why it simply wasn't practicable to adopt a "conflict management formula" centred on pre-emption.

The issues arising out of morals/ethics/law are, of course, just one "side of the coin".  I always want to ask those who say they live by a "hit first and and hard" philosophy how that has been working for them.

However I really doubt most have ever applied that philosophy in daily life.

Let's just say that what might work well in the middle of a cage/ring fight is more often than not an unsuitable strategy to adopt when arguing (albeit heatedly) with your neighbour about the dividing fence (again, see my articles "Strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir!" and "Reasonable and necessary force") .

The other "side of the coin" is that which I've previously discussed in "Surviving the surprise attack": the logistics of human reaction times and the nature of many (in particular, serious) attacks mean that you just won't have the chance to "intercept early" - never mind "pre-empt".

I can see now a few people shaking their heads at this. I know (from past experience) that their argument will very likely centre on fine distinctions of what it means to be "surprised" - or how they have taken great care to "avoid surprises".

Well in a forthcoming article I hope to demonstrate that the "threshold" for inadequate time to pre-empt is, in fact, not very high at all.  As I will demonstrate, you can be facing your opponent, fully prepared for combat - and still not have enough time to pre-empt an attack; in fact, for some attacks you can do little more than rely on a modified flinch reflex to "check" or "ride" the blow.  I'll expand on that very soon.

In the meantime I'll just note that the "pre-emptive formula" approach makes the same error as that made in the first objection: it seeks to provide a solution in the form of an "ironclad rule".

The truth of the matter is, however, that in this complex world of infinite variables there can be no such "rule".  Rather, I think both Funakoshi and Motobu had something worthwhile to say - and that it is prudent to apply a bit of each one's philosophy as the need arises.

To quote my friend Jeff again:
I agree that they [Funakoshi and Motobu] were both right. At the same time, I'm inclined to think that this does not mean that both men were operating well within the other's principle. I think Funakoshi was probably nowhere near Motobu's ability to preempt and strike first/simultaneously. And I think Motobu was far less virtuous than the ideal described - and probably practiced - by Funakoshi. So, while both were right, they could both probably stand to learn something from the other one.
I think he nailed it there.

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