“Karate” is a broad term, which covers many different martial methodologies and styles originating on Okinawa and, later, Japan. There are a number of misconceptions about what karate is, although there has been a movement–a sort of “karate Renaissance”–in the past decade, or so, which has been making more information about karate available, and promotes a practical approach to the art. With this knowledge comes the understanding that karate is a broad-spectrum martial art, rather than a specialized one. Some have gone so far as to say that it is “the original MMA,” and it is, indeed, a mixed martial art, of a sort. The Okinawan nobility who practiced martial arts were no strangers to cross-training, and blended methods from different instructors, different styles, or even entirely different countries, so long as they found it to be functional. They practiced grappling arts, and weaponry, and police tactics, among many other subjects which, over time, worked their way into the practices that would one day be known as “karate.” Thanks to this open-minded developmental process, old-style Okinawan karate can be seen as consisting of five primary elements–not the esoteric ki/chi/qi elements (fire, earth, metal, water, and wood), but real, physical elements that cover a wide array of combative skills.
The most common and obvious element of karate is striking–so obvious that most people think that it is the one and only element of the art. This is misconception that was noted even as far back as the 1930’s, when Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu) famously stated that “the karate that has been introduced to Tokyo is actually just part of the whole,” and specifically felt the need to point out that there was more to karate than just kicks and punches. That said, striking methods of various sorts are the primary methods of karate, with the rest being used to facilitate, support, or augment the strikes, or to find alternatives when striking fails. The striking methods of karate are typically divided into three types–tsuki-waza, uchi-waza, and keri-waza–although there is enough subtlety and variation within these categories to blur the lines, a bit.
Tsuki-waza, or “thrusting techniques,” are quite popular and common methods of striking in karate, although they tend to appear more in modern sport-karate than in the older kata. These are typically described as being linear strikes, performed with the arms, and include techniques such as seiken-tsuki (forefist thrust/”punch”), nukite-tsuki (spear hand thrust), and shotei/teisho-tsuki (palm heel thrust). In reality, there are techniques classified as tsuki-waza which are not entirely linear, because the key to this category of strikes is that they “thrust” outward from the body, and that is their primary method of delivering force. This would include techniques such as age-ura-tsuki (rising “underside” thrust)–similar to the uppercut in boxing–which thrusts upward, but tends to follow an arcing patch, rather than a purely straight one.
Uchi-waza is a comparatively broader term, as the word “uchi,” in this case, is a variant of the word “utsu,” which simply means “to strike, hit, or pound,” meaning that uchi-waza translates to “striking/hitting techniques.” Indeed, you could consider tsuki-waza to be an example of uchi-waza. In karate, however, you will often find that the word “uchi-waza” is most commonly used to refer to striking techniques which are circular in nature, including strikes such as kote/ude-uchi (wrist/forearm strike), haito-uchi (ridgehand strike), and enpi-uchi (elbow strike). These tend to rely on swinging the arm in order to generate impact, therefore moving primarily in arcing or circular motions. These types of strikes actually appear more frequently in koryu (old style) kata than tsuki-waza.
Keri-waza, or “kicking techniques,” are relatively straightforward in their classification. These are techniques where the legs are used to strike, in a variety of ways. In looking at kata, these tend to consist mostly of mae-geri (front kicks), yoko-geri (side kicks), mikazuki-geri (crescent kicks), and suki/sukui-geri (shovel/scoop kicks), in various forms. Other kicks, such as mawashi-geri (turning/”roundhouse” kicks) and kakato-geri (heel kicks) are not generally present in the kata, although they can be seen as variants of the kicks and principles found within the kata. Striking with the knee is also classified as keri-waza, being named “hiza-geri” (knee kicks), although there are some styles which prefer to place them into the uchi-waza category–likely because, in English, “knee kick” is confusing, and we call them “knee strikes” instead.
Less widely-practiced, but still an important component of karate, are takedowns. In the context of karate, this element consists of any technique (that is not a strike) that is specifically intended to remove an opponent from their feet and put them on the ground. This would include not only proper “throws,” but trips, sweeps, and various other methods of putting an opponent on the ground, as well.. In Judo, which specializes in throwing techniques, there are four classifications of throws; te-waza (hand techniques), koshi-waza (hip techniques), ashi-waza (leg/foot techniques), and sutemi-waza (sacrifice techniques). Iain Abernethy, an authority on the practical application of karate, actually has three classifications of the nage-waza in karate; lifting, leg-trapping, and posture-disrupting throws. One could use either method of classification, or combine them to more accurately describe a particular technique, as the Judo classifications are based on how the thrower executes the technique, while Abernethy’s classifications are based on what happens to the person being thrown. As with any categorization system, there will be some degree of crossover between the categories.
“Lifting throws” are, quite simply, throws which life the enemy off their feet before throwing them to the ground. A popular example of such a throw would be the shoulder throw, which Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan) called tani-otoshi (valley drop), Kano Jigoro (founder of Judo) called ippon-seoi-nage (single back-carry throw), and Itoman Morinobu (author of The Study of China Hand Techniques) called seinosu-nage (riding back throw). This throw can be found in martial arts from all over the world, as well. Using the Judo classification, this would be considered a te-waza (hand technique), because it primarily utilizes the arms to perform the throw. Other examples, like the similarly-common hip throw, called o-goshi (big hip) in Judo, would be included in the category of “lifting throws,” but would be considered koshi-waza (hip technique) in Judo, as the throw relies on the placement and use of the hips to perform the throw.
“Leg-trapping throws” can be a fairly broad category, as the opponent’s legs can be trapped in a variety of ways with both the thrower’s legs and arms. A simple example of this would be a trip or foot sweep (ashi-barai), which is found in the vast majority of martial arts, in some form or another. By sweeping the foot, you are preventing the opponent’s leg from being placed where intended in order to maintain their balance. The kick-catch takedowns that can be seen in kata like Passai and Kusanku, not to mention the variety of other martial arts which utilize such techniques, can also be seen as “leg-trapping throws,” as they hold the opponent’s leg off the ground, and allow the thrower to apply leverage to the opponent and throw them to the ground. There are also a number of methods found in karate where your stance is used to trap the opponent’s foot or leg, and apply pressure to their leg in order to cause them to lose their balance, which would fall into this category. Karate also has methods of applying leverage to a standing opponent’s legs while the defender is on the ground, which would also be considered “leg-trapping” in nature. The double-leg takedown, which Funakoshi called ude-wa (arm ring), and Kano called morote-gari (double reap)–and would be classified as te-waza in Judo–can be seen as a leg-trapping throw, although it can also be a lifting throw, depending on how it is executed. If the thrower simply wraps their arms around the opponent’s legs and drives into them to knock them down, it would be a leg-trapping throw, but if the thrower wraps their arms around the opponent’s legs and uses that to pick the opponent up and throw them down, it would be a lifting throw.
“Posture-disrupting throws” encompass a wide variety of techniques which manipulate the opponent in such a way that they fall down. The koma-nage (spinning top throw) that Funakoshi published in his books is one such example, as the opponent can be put face-down on the floor by applying an armbar to them in such a way that they must move away from the pain, or allow their joint to be dislocated. Funakoshi’s tsubame-gaeshi (returning swallow), which is similar to the shiho-nage (four corner throw) seen in jujutsu and Aikido, would also fall into this category, as the opponent is forced to lose their posture–and therefore, their balance–by moving to relieve the pressure of a joint lock. Such throws are not generally as elegant as trained uke (receivers) make them look, however, as discussed in a previous article (LINK). Techniques where the opponent’s head is pushed, pulled, or twisted to force them to the ground would also be included in this category. The scissor/wedge throws that are prevalent in KishimotoDi are primarily posture-disrupting throws, but they are only able to disrupt the opponent’s posture because the stance used in the throw is trapping the opponent’s legs, preventing them from stepping out of the throw and regaining their balance.
As mentioned, above, there are a number of joint locking methods found in karate, which has been discussed in detail in a previous article (LINK). To summarize, there are generally three types of joint locks–hyperextending, compressing, and twisting–and they can be practiced in a number of different ways, for various reasons. There are also compound locks, which make use of two, or even all three methods of affecting the joint of an opponent. Most of the joint locks found in karate are used against standing opponents, often to clear the way for strikes, or to facilitate takedowns, but there are some that are meant for use on the ground, as well.
Hyperextending joint locks are typically simple, and relatively common, as they are performed by forcing a joint (usually a hinge joint) past its natural stopping point. The classic armbar is an example of this, where the arm is bent backward at the elbow in order to hyperextend it. Most people will be familiar with an armbar performed on the ground, with the person using the lock is lying on their back, which is seen frequently in MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In Judo, such a lock is called juji-gatame (cross hold/lock). The same concept can be applied in many different positions, however, as seen in Funakoshi’s koma-nage, or the chest-lever armbar application of manji-gamae (swastika posture), or some of the restraining techniques seen in the karamidi (“entangling hand”) methods of karate. Knees, wrists, ankles, fingers, and toes can also all be hyperextended, and even if one is not taught a joint lock specifically intended for those joints, they can apply the same principles they used for the armbar in order to get the desired effect. From there, small details in the execution can be tweaked and improved to make the lock more effective.
Twisting joint locks can be applied to most joints, and in many cases, twisting can be incorporated into hyperextending or compressing locks in order to make them more effective. The most common example of a twisting lock would be rotational shoulder locks, such as the one seen in Funakoshi’s tsubame-gaeshi, the ude-garami (arm entanglement) of Judo, the hammer lock of Catch Wrestling, and the Americana, Kimura, and Omoplata found in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Many wrist locks are also rotational in nature, such as the Nikkyo/Nikkajo of Aikido, although they frequently incorporate compression, as well. Such rotational locks are frequently found in Motobu Udundi (Palace Hand), which was the martial art taught to members of the royal family on Okinawa.
While a number of the techniques covered up to this point can be considered “grappling” techniques, there are a number of skills related to grappling that are meant to be included in the practice karate. Primarily, these skills are simply manipulations of the body in order for the karateka to better position themselves in a fight. In many cases, these methods are not injurious in and of themselves, but set up such techniques. There are a few, however, which can potentially end a fight, on their own. While the standing grappling methods of karate can be extensive, there tends to be decidedly less groundwork within karate. This can be primarily attributed to the practice of tegumi/muto–a folkstyle submission wrestling sport–throughout Okinawan history. This sport was practiced ubiquitously, and it can be reasoned that all Okinawans (males, at least) were familiar with grappling, regardless of their knowledge of karate. Additionally, karate masters throughout history were proponents of cross-training in grappling arts, such as Japanese koryu jujutsu systems, Sumo, or Judo. With that in mind, we can say that karate should not only be limited to the groundwork methods that we know it classically contained, but rather should be expanded upon through cross-training.
Limb control is quite possibly the most vital grappling method found in karate, and appears in very nearly every practical application of kata movements. A wide array of pulling, pushing, pinning, and lifting methods can be found throughout karate, which are intended to be used to control or relocate an opponent’s arms or legs. The most common example of this is hikite (pulling hand), or the “chamber” position often seen as karateka work their basics, which is intended to twist and pull the opponent toward the karateka. When employed to pull the opponent’s arm–its most common application–this not only pulls the opponent into strikes, but prevents them from striking with that arm, and ensures that they cannot block the karateka’s strikes using that arm. Other examples, such as shuto-uke (sword hand receiver), may hug the opponent’s arm, while techniques like gedan-barai (low level sweep) can be used to pin the opponent’s arm to their own body. Some techniques, such as the “stacked hands” or “cup and saucer” hand position found in some kata, can be used to move the opponent’s arms entirely out of the way, turning them to the side and exposing their back. These methods are intended to make the opponent more vulnerable, and less effective, while setting the karateka up to execute fight-ending techniques.
Kuzushi (off-balancing) is a vital skill in grappling, not only because it facilitates throws and takedowns, but also for its value in reducing the opponent’s offensive effectiveness. In Judo, there is a popular diagram (LINK) for representing the ways a person can be taken off-balance, called Happo no Kuzushi (Eight Directions of Off-Balancing), which is essentially a compass rose. Of course, this is a two-dimensional representation of something that occurs in three dimensions, so it is more conceptual than literal. Pushing, pulling, or twisting an opponent in order to bring their center of gravity away from their base forces them to either move or fall, which is why is makes throws and takedowns so effective, but it also means that, for a moment, the opponent does not have a base. What this means is that any strikes they throw will be considerably weakened, and they will have a hard time aiming those strikes because they lack stability. Additionally, most people tend to spread their arms out when they lose their balance, in an attempt to regain it, which opens the way for a number of different techniques, aside from those, such as strikes and joint locks.
Taking down standing opponents from the ground is probably the most prevalent groundwork skill found in books written by the Okinawan karate masters of the early 20th Century. Such methods can also be found in the Bubishi, which ties back to various Chinese martial arts, and their methods. Being taken down in a fight is bad enough when the opponent goes down with you, but when your opponent is still standing, they have more freedom of movement and more tools at their disposal, on top of having gravity on their side. For this reason, it makes sense to have techniques which can trip up the opponent, and knock them to the ground, as well. Typically, these involve trapping the opponent’s foot, then kicking the opponent’s leg or body in order to knock them over. In some cases, however, the body or arms can be used to apply leverage against the opponent’s leg, instead.
Regaining the feet–that is, being able to get back up if you are taken down–is an important skill for self defense, as well as for combat sports where the opponent may outclass you on the ground. This is not as simple as just standing up, however, as you have to contend with an opponent who may be on top of you, or standing over you, and is likely continuing to attack you. Against a standing opponent, kicks from the ground can keep an opponent at a distance, for a time, but will rarely stop an attacker. You must use that distance to stand back up, which requires you to get your feet beneath you, and there are a couple of schools of thought on how to accomplish that. The most popular method among a variety of arts is what many call the “tactical stand-up,” where you maintain a defensive position throughout the process so you can block, kick, or drop back to the ground, as needed. If the opponent is on top of you, rather than standing, then your ability to bridge and shrimp becomes vital, so you can make space and keep the opponent from staying in (or getting to) a dominant position that leaves you vulnerable. These skills can be employed in a number of different ways, depending on what the opponent does, and must be trained accordingly.
Restraining a grounded opponent is not a skill that most would attribute to karate training, but history tells us that it was an important component of the grappling element of the art, albeit in a different way than most would expect. Today, putting someone into a pin, lock, or choke in order to get them to submit is the primary goal of most grappling arts, but these are usually done with both participants being on the ground. In looking at the history of karate, we know that this is not the correct context for the art–tegumi/muto would be more fitting in that role. A better modern analog for these techniques would be police tactics, where the person being restrained is on the ground, and the person restraining them is only on the ground enough to restrain them, search them, and cuff them. The reason for this analogy is simple; karate was developed and practiced, primarily, by the noble classes of Okinawa, and many of the people within those classes held security, peacekeeping, and law enforcement positions as part of their station. With that in mind, the majority of techniques found in karate that are meant to restrain an opponent on the ground are pins and joint locks that allow the karateka to quickly stand or react to threats, rather then being tangled up on the ground with an opponent. Even so, as was the case in the past, cross-training in grappling arts is important for developing a solid understanding of how people can move on the ground, making your restraining methods more effective, and preparing you to adjust on the fly, as needed.
These five elements, in order to be truly effective, must be trained together. Separating specific elements and techniques to develop those skills is a necessary step in the learning process, but keeping them isolated from each other will result in an early plateau in skill development. To be well-rounded, one must be able to transition between all five elements of karate, as necessary, and without incorporating them together in training, that ability will never develop. This is where many students find themselves–learning a variety of fighting skills, but never training to combine them. Incorporating several elements into cohesive drills is a good start, as it gives students examples of how different methods can work together. Kakedameshi (which has been discussed in previous articles: LINK, LINK) is one good way of pressure testing these methods, but you can also incorporate them into other forms of sparring, such as MMA-style sparring or resistant scenario exercises. Only when a karateka can transition between elements naturally, without thought, against resistance, can they be said to be “well-rounded” martial artists, and even then–as always–there is plenty of room for improvement. It is tempting, as “traditional martial artists,” to attempt to put karate in a glass case and preserve it exactly as it was taught, instead of taking to heart the spirit of its development and embracing pressure testing, cross-training, and studying the wide array of combative methods that exist within karate, as well as those from elsewhere which may enhance it. This is what the old masters of Okinawa did, and there is no reason for that tradition to end. In the words of the Japanese poet, Basho, “do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”