While many joint locking techniques (kansetsu-waza) exist within karate, there are still karateka who are unaware of them and, frequently, people look at the joint locks of karate from the perspective of other arts. We know that such techniques exist within karate, not only because of karateka who kept them in their curricula into modern times, such as Uehara Seikichi (LINK), Oyata Seiyu (LINK), and Tetsuhiro Hokama (LINK), but also because can see examples of these joint locks in books written by old karate masters like Itoman Morinobu (an Okinawan police officer who learned karate prior to its introduction to the school system), Motobu Choki (an infamously skilled fighter), Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan), and Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu), who famously said that Goju-Ryu had not been fully introduced to the mainland of Japan, and that it contained a variety of locks and throws (LINK). We also know that one of the sparring methods of old-style karate was kakedameshi (lit. “crossing/testing of spirits”) which Nagamine Shoshin (founder of Matsubayashi-Ryu) described in his book, Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, as including joint locks (LINK). On top of this, we know that Okinawan youths regularly participated in tegumi/muto (folkstyle submission wrestling) which is described by Funakoshi and Nagamine as including throws, chokes, and joint locks. Additionally, we know that many Okinawan masters highly regarded the Bubishi/Wu Bei Zhi (LINK) as a source for historical Chinese fighting methods that carry over into karate, and it contains several joint locks. Of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese martial arts styles, and most of them contain joint locks. George Kerr also wrote in his book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People (LINK), that the martial arts of Okinawa originated from Siam (modern-day Thailand), and Muay Boran (the ancestor art of Muay Thai) contains joint locks (LINK). In other words, we have a great deal of information to support the presence of joint locks within the curriculum of classical Okinawan karate. As Iain Abernethy Sensei recently addressed (LINK), it is fairly common for people to associate certain techniques with certain martial arts, and that can lead to misconceptions and confusion. Often, this results in people seeing a joint lock from karate, associating it with another martial art (typically Japanese jujutsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or Aikido), and assuming that it is meant to be applied from the perspective of that art, which may have a different context, making the technique seem as though it would be ineffective. Other times, the joint locks of karate are simply demonstrated in a manner that is meant for skill-building, and not direct combative application, which can also lead to a belief that the technique is impractical. In order to understand the plethora of tuidi-waza (seizing hand techniques) the exist within the methods of karate, you not only need to understand the mechanics of how they work, but also the context in which they are meant to be applied, and train accordingly.
To begin with, as I see it, there are generally three primary types of joint locks–hyperextending, compressing, and twisting–and many joint locks are some combination of those types. These categories are my own, and other martial artists may be more granular in their categorization of joint locks, but I find that most can fit into these types. Hyperextension is simply moving a joint past its intended stopping point, which is typically done to hinge-type joints, since their range of motion is already fairly limited. Compression is a bit more complicated, because it can be driving both halves of a joint into each other, or closing a hinge joint (hyperflexion), usually with something inside of it. Twisting is a fairly straight-forward concept, which is to twist the joint past the connective tissue’s ability to hold it in place. All of the joint locks that I can think of can fit into one or more of these categories, although there are many ways to perform these actions on a joint, and many joints to apply them on.
Hyperextending locks are probably the most common across all of the martial arts that contain joint locks. Hinge-type joints, such as the fingers, elbows, and knees, are the easiest targets for such locks, because you just have to figure out a way to fully extend the joint, and then force it past its stopping point. The example of this that most people will be most familiar with is the armbar. That word will typically conjure up a mental image of the classic juji-gatame (cross hold) of Judo–the same armbar taught in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and frequently used to win MMA fights–and if you were to do a Google Images search, you would see pages and pages of exactly that. The trouble with that is that an armbar is an armbar based on principles, not a specific example of a technique. The standing armbar commonly seen in karate is just as much an armbar as the one seen in BJJ, despite looking very different. This is because they are both using the same principles, but in different contexts. The biggest difference, of course, is that BJJ typically applies armbars on the ground, and often in a sporting environment, as opposed to karate applying it from a standing position in a self defense or law enforcement context.
Compressing locks are less common, in their purest form, but karate has some very useful compressing locks, and compression adds a very significant augmentation to hyperextending and twisting locks. Spearing the shoulder joint, which is sometimes done following an armbar, would be a pure compression lock, driving one half of the joint (the ball of the humerus) into the other half (the shoulder socket). Another example of a more common compression lock would be a gooseneck wrist lock, in which the wrist is hyperflexed and squeezed while the elbow is held in place to form a base. There are many variations of this, from “come-along” methods to restraints. Those who are familiar with the 1936 compendium of Chinese law enforcement grappling methods, Chin Na Fa (LINK), can find this in the “carrying/lifting a basket” techniques pictures in the book. Often, compressing locks can include some sort of wedge being inserted into the joint as it is compressed, which can be seen in the calf-slicer technique used in BJJ and MMA to lock the knee joint. Karate uses the same principle fairly often–particularly in Naihanchi–by stepping onto the back of the opponent’s knee and driving it to the floor. As with the hyperextending lock examples, these do very much the same type of damage to the joint, but look very different due to the context.
Twisting locks can be applied to most joints, with varying degrees of success, and are nearly as commonly found as hyperextending locks. All of the joints in the human body are held together with connective tissues, and twisting a joint to the point where these tissues fail will cause a great deal of damage. For example, a ball-and-socket joint, like the shoulder, is meant to twist and rotate, but the tissues that hold the joint in socket can only provide support up to a point. This means that the shoulder can be locked, but because it is a very mobile joint, it has to be brought to a position where it can no longer hold itself in place. A “chicken wing” or “hammer lock,” where the opponent’s elbow is bent and their hand is brought behind their back, can effectively accomplish this. Such locks can be found in a variety of arts, from karate, which does it from a standing position, to HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), which does the lock with a dagger or sword, to BJJ, where most people may be familiar with the omoplata shoulder lock, which is done on the ground using the leg. Again, all of these are doing the exact same lock, using the same principles, but in differing contexts.
The question then becomes, what context are the joint locks of karate intended for? Myth and legend would tell you that they are for farmers to fight Satsuma samurai but, as I’ve discussed before (LINK), that is false. Historically, karate, under many different names, was practiced almost exclusively by the Shizoku classes and royalty of Okinawa (LINK). These include scholars, guards, police, military, and princes, to name a few, and they all may have different needs in their martial studies. A scholar, for example, may be more interested in the study of how the body moves than fighting practicality. Police may focus a great deal on restraining methods in order to detain people without causing grievous bodily harm, while royal guards might be more likely to go for the kill to keep their charges safe. We have to keep these types of possibilities in mind when considering the contexts in which karate was meant to be used. Itosu Anko (LINK), who was responsible for formalizing and kick-starting the popularity of karate by introducing it to the Okinawan school system, included this in his Ten Precepts (LINK), stating that it can be studied not only “for your own benefit,” but also “avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one be confronted by a villain or ruffian,” and says that you must decide if your training is “for your health or to aid in your duty.”
This wide array of possible contexts is partially the source of the various styles of karate that exist today, and makes the study of karate very complex. With this in mind, we can not only break down the joint locks of karate by mechanical types, but also into four methods; restraint, disruption, destruction, and education. These methods tend to coincide with the specific needs of the practitioner. Restraining methods are meant to restrict the opponent’s movement, often through pain compliance, without causing any more damage than necessary. Disrupting techniques are typically meant to distract the opponent with pain, or force them to move and take their balance away (kuzushi). Destruction methods are generally intended to dislocate joints, or cause enough damage to the connective tissues that the opponent’s limb becomes useless. Educational joint locking methods, unlike the other three methods, are often complex or difficult to accomplish in combat, but are intended to teach the underlying principles of joint locking, and to teach the practitioner how the joints of the body work and what their limitations are.
The interesting thing about these different methods is that the same technique can be used in several methods, and simply be applied differently. If we consider an armbar, for example, different people will have different needs when they use it. A police officer may need to force a suspect to the ground so they can be handcuffed, without dislocating the elbow (which would actually result in the loss of the lock). In order to accomplish this, they would have to apply the lock somewhat slowly, to give the opponent time to react to the pain of the technique and move appropriately, and use the lock to guide the opponent to the ground, often by turning and sinking. An MMA fighter, on the other hand, may want to disrupt their opponent’s balance and distract them so they can go for a takedown or land a strike. To do that, they would have to wrench the armbar quickly enough that their opponent doesn’t have enough time to consciously move away from it, but not so forcefully that the joint dislocates. A civilian protecting their family from a home intruder, however, would likely benefit from doing as much damage to their opponent as possible to prevent them from doing any further harm. This would mean that the lock would be done as fast and forcefully as possible to ensure that the joint is dislocated and/or the connective tissues are so damaged that they cannot hold the joint stable and allow it to move. For someone who is simply studying the way the body works, and how it can be affected, there is no need for speed or force. Such a student may focus on experimenting with minute changes in angle and rotation which would be too difficult to apply in combat, but which further the understanding of how the armbar can be made more effective. All of these methods have value, but obviously they are suited to different types of situations, and karate, as a lifelong pursuit that stems from a variety of needs, includes all of them to some degree.
So how does this affect your training? That will largely depend on why you study karate. If you are seeking the fullest karate education possible, or want to learn practical skills for self protection, then you will need to study all of these methods. The trouble that most karateka encounter with joint locks–and which make other practitioners question the practicality of them–is that many dojo only practice them as restraining methods, or educational methods, and may not work them in a practical manner, or pressure test them. This results in a knowledge of how the locks work, but not the knowledge of how to get to them and make them usable. These are things that can be difficult to address on a dojo level, let alone an organizational level, because as traditional martial artists tend to do, many practitioners will cling to “the way we’ve always done it.” Even so, individual students or instructors can still find like-minded individuals in their dojo or organization to start introducing more effective training practices, and that can work its way into the community over time.
When it comes to training to be effective, if a student is only ever taught restraining locks or educational joint locking methods, then they are learning very “gentle” and “slow” (comparatively) techniques. These certainly have their place, but disrupting and destroying methods are faster and more brutal, which is very valuable when your life is on the line, but can be scary in training. You have to practice techniques with these methods in mind, while remaining controlled enough to not injure your partner. These techniques are often said to be “too dangerous” but, just like a punch to the face, they are only as dangerous as the person doing them makes them, and if they have proper control, they can put enough of a jolt into the joint to get the desired response without damaging the joint. To practice the locks fully, students would have to employ training tools such as kakiya/kakete-biki (which I mentioned in this article: LINK), or even something as simple as a rope or belt tied to a post to act as a substitute limb, so that no one is injured.
We must also consider the way that the joint locks are presented, taught, and practiced. Often, it is easier to teach (and be understood) outside of the context the lock is intended to be used in. Fighting is chaotic, and messy, and if a technique is taught solely in context, it can be very difficult for students to clearly visualize and understand how the technique is supposed to work. For this reason, many instructors will teach joint locks to the arms, for example, against long range punches or pushes, because it gives students a lot of room to see what is happening, gives them the right motion to be able to get to the lock, and often students have already spent time training how to block/receive punches, so this is an easy transition. This is often not very realistic, however, as karate is intended to be used primarily at close range, and the locks tend to come into play much more at that range than at the long distance often used for demonstrations and teaching. Joint locks are not the only technique that suffer from this, and karate is not the only martial art that does this–the same approach can be seen in Chinese arts, for example, or even HEMA (Historical European martial arts), where techniques are sometimes taught “out of measure” for safety. Teaching and practicing in this manner is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it is very limiting from a practicality aspect. Essentially, the long range, simplified entry into the techniques is a good introduction, but training should go beyond it.
Kakie/kakidi (hooked/crossed hands) training is common across many styles of karate, and similar practices are very prevalent in Chinese arts. These practices range from very simple with both participants’ lead hands crossed at the wrist, just pressing back and forth, to much more complex, with changing arms, pushes, steps, and circular motions. Some karateka simply work the motions back and forth, but some use them as entries into strikes, locks, and takedowns. These exercises are a good way to introduce students to the idea that joint locks can be worked at close range, and to develop the tactile sensitivity necessary to do them, which working from long range punches and pushes doesn’t do as well. Because both people’s limbs are in contact with each other, each participant can feel what the other is doing based on touch, which will allow them to develop a sense for when their opponent’s limb can be locked. As with our armbar example, the arm has to be extended in order to apply a hyperextending lock to the elbow, and if your arm is in contact with your opponent’s arm, you will know immediately when they are attempting to extend it, because it will be pushing against your arm. Similarly, you will know when your opponent pulls away, or circles. Such training methods are not necessarily directly applicable to self defense, but the skills they build are vital to being able to apply the joint locks and other methods found in karate.
To get closer to reality, we need a training method that is more open-ended, which is where kakedameshi comes into play. It makes use of the same tactile sensitivity and entries found in kakie/kakidi, but in more of a “sparring” type manner. Partners get the chance to freely exchange strikes, locks, chokes, and takedowns, while focusing on using tactile sensitivity and muchimidi (sticky hands), and in the process also get to resist and defend against those methods. This can be approached slowly and gently, with a focus on skill development, or quickly with hard contact, to pressure test the karateka and their ability to apply what they have been working against a resisting opponent. This is a key component of training that many martial artists are missing, and why they are unable to really make the jump from learning a technique to being able to use it. Kakedameshi puts you up close and personal with your opponent, and forces you to deal with a tangle of limbs with very little space to react, which is more effective for preparing you for the chaos of fighting than simply drilling a technique against a set attack. Additionally, it allows you to learn how to incorporate strikes into your joint locks to make them easier to find. For example, a strike to the body will tend to make the arms weaken, so they can be extended more easily, while kicking out a leg may cause an arm to reach out to regain balance, or a strike to the face will tend to cause the opponent to recoil and pull their arms back toward their face to protect it or clear their vision. Of course, sometimes a strike is simply distracting enough to allow you to lock the joint, regardless of what the limb is doing. These types of reactions are often built into the techniques of kata, but come alive in resistant training methods.
What we call “kata randori” in our dojo is another method of pressure testing techniques, including joint locks, which deals with more realistic attacks. Kakedameshi is highly valuable for skill development and pressure testing, but is a sparring method that focuses on a very specific set of skills, and the resistance provided is that of a trained opponent, as opposed to an untrained attacker. Kata randori is, as the name suggests, the free practice of techniques from kata, which is done against realistic attacks, of various types, and the attacks and resistance provided by the attacker is intended to be that of an untrained person. This should result in a series of messy and, ideally, one-sided exchanges. The kata techniques are meant to take control of an opponent and end the threat as quickly as possible, and deal with failure should the threat continue. This approach to sparring is not as open as kakedameshi or jiyu kumite, in that each partner has a specific role to play. It is, however, very useful for developing the ability to deal with a relentless attacker, and employ old-style karate methods to do so, while also training out peoples’ tendency to stop after they have practiced a technique they deemed “successful.” In martial arts, concessions must always be made to balance realism with safety and, therefore, one should not limit themselves to a single approach, because a more varied approach allows you to compensate for those concessions.