As karateka, we often look at being on the receiving end of attacks, but sometimes we can overlook dealing with the defense of our attackers. From a philosophical view, it is easy to understand why this could happen. Most serious karateka are familiar with the concept of “karate ni sente nashi,” or “there is no initiating hand in karate.” Often, people translate this to mean “there is no first strike in karate.” This maxim is meant to emphasize the defensive nature of karate, which is very important, but it can sometimes make us forget that an attacker can defend themselves, too. If we are attacked, most of the responses we are trained to use are actually attacks, themselves. Hopefully, they are successful and the situation is over, but for any number of reasons, our counter-attack might fail. If it does, then we are left with an obstacle to overcome, and that is the opponent’s response to our counter-attack. This is where old-style karate really shines.
The most likely obstruction that you will find is the opponent’s arms. If you strike, they might block or cover up. If you apply tuidi-waza (seizing hand techniques), they might resist or grapple with you. In either case, the attacker may continue to fight if given the opportunity, so we must be able to deal with their defenses before they resume their assault. This scenario is precisely why sticky/listening hands drills, like kakie/kakidi (crossed/hooked hands) are vital to karateka. Through those drills, you should develop tactile sensitivity that will allow you to quickly notice if your strike has been blocked, or your lock resisted, or your arm grabbed. You should also be able to determine if the opponent’s arm is static, or if it is pulling or pushing, and in what direction. This is a skill that takes a while to develop, but can be introduced very early on in training–even children can work these types of drills!
This tactile information can be processed by your brain more quickly than visual information, alone, so it enables you to make quicker decisions about how to deal with the obstruction. As a general rule, you should move with your opponent, rather than against them. If they push your strike away, then you can pull their block in the direction it is already pushing, which will clear it from the path of your next strike. If they bend their arm to resist an armbar, then you can bend their arm further to put them into an ude-garami (arm entanglement). If they grab you and pull you toward them, you can step toward them with a strike, using their pull to add power to your attack. These are all ju (soft) aspects of karate. If you are dealing with a more static defense, such as a boxer’s guard, then a more go (hard) approach can work. You can simply pull or push the arms out of the way, or strike them out of the way by cutting lines.
These principles can be applied to the rest of your opponent’s body, as well. Good grapplers can sense an opponent’s balance and movement through their grips, and move with it to apply throws and sweeps. If you try to throw or sweep a person, and it fails, they will try to correct their balance and stance. This correction gives you an opportunity to change your throw or sweep so that it uses their new motion against them. In addition, if they try to throw you, then they are committing their energy in a way that can be exploited. French judoka, Automne Pavia, does this very well with her harai makikomi (sweeping wraparound) counter throw, which you can see in the animated GIF, above, and in this video. You could go the hard route, and try to force your throw or sweep to work with all of your strength, and it might even work, but it uses a lot of energy. One of the key tenants of judo is “seiryoku zenyou,” which means “maximum efficiency, minimum effort.” Many competitive judoka ignore this tenant, but I feel that it is vital–not only to judo, but also to karate.