Sunday, February 16, 2014

Traditional techniques in MMA - Part 1

Many readers will have noticed that I have been unusually quiet since the start of the year.  I assure you that this is not for any reduced interest, or will to engage in, martial writing, but rather due to the presence of a creative side-project that will take up significant resources in the next few months.  Given that this has involved about 45,000 words in 1 1/2 months, and given that I have written about the same in my day job, you can see that my time is somewhat limited.

But I'm finally ready to take a break from my side project to come back to martial writing - thanks largely to my friend Noah Legel and his fascinating posts on Facebook concerning "Fight Night 36" - a UFC sanctioned tournament.

Noah correctly noticed that two interesting techniques executed by Erik Silva against Takenori Sato are really "old school" karate techniques and not the "newly invented techniques" that people were talking about.

This gif posted by Noah below reveals both of them.  Let's consider them in turn.

The first technique you'll notice is a toe kick to the solar plexus/abdomen.  This is a seriously potent kick - and it has clearly had such an effect in this fight as I'll soon discuss.

But before I get to that, what are its traditional credentials?  Noah correct observes that it is a very old karate kick.

From my earliest days I was told stories about how karate originally used the toe - not ball of foot - kick.  For more on its history and technical deployment, I will direct you to Christopher Caile's excellent series of articles at - starting here  (see also Parts 2 and 3).

Now like most karateka, I was told this "tsumasaki" was the "predecessor" to all karate kicks; that the ball of foot was a "concession" to modern kicking methods, brought about due to the declining need for, and interest in, lethal fighting techniques.  In fact, the ball of foot kick was just a "barefoot dojo innovation".

I was told that some styles - such as uechi ryu - still preserved the "original" or "old" kicking method.  Note the video below, for example, which pretty much exemplifies all of the stories I was told in my early years (set to start at the toe kick):

But is this really "traditional karate"?  Was the toe kick ever so prevalent in Okinawan and other ancient fighting systems?  Jesse Enkamp has given us a different perspective to consider, and I invite you to read it here.

For my own purposes I'll strike a balance between the two and agree with both positions: yes, the toe kick was an ancient predecessor and the ball of the foot kick probably did come to the fore as a result of barefoot dojo training.

But, at the same time, I severely doubt that the kind of "hard" toe kicking (breaking boards etc.) shown in the above video was contemplated by most traditional martial artists in Okinawan and Chinese history.  Rather, I think most reserved toe kicks for low, soft regions.  Or they kicked with the toes and ended up by kicking with the ball of the foot anyway.
Why do I say this?
For the simple reason that, as I have outlined previously, most people in sufficiently advanced societies (which would include China and Okinawa during the development of of gong fu and karate) had developed the shoe - if for no other reason than that winters were cold enough to warrant them.  And to survive any length of time, these shoes had to be sturdy.

You'll note from my previous article that kicking in sturdy shoes inevitably means that you can't really pull your foot into the classic, barefoot, "ball of foot" shape.  You can only really form a "toe kick".

But, at the same time, when aimed to the midsection or higher, the toe kick in a shoe will inevitably result in the ball of foot being your main point of force transference.  Why?   Because a shod foot will often naturally fold the toes back on impact, causing the impact to be distributed to the ball of the foot.

The latter is particularly true when the kick is aimed above the midsection; any upward moment results in the kick having a natural "scooping" tendency which can only be offset by levelling out the ankle during the "chamber" phase.  But the average person's ankle flexibility is not that of a ballerina; most folks can't go "en pointe".  This means that the ankle has a slight upward angle on impact - and "Voila!": the ball of foot is the first point of contact, not the toes.

Even if the toes do contact first, they do so with a bias to the under side of the toe.  This, in turn, leads to the natural "fold" of the foot to favour the ball of foot, as I have mentioned above.

Of course, when karate came to be practised more frequently in barefoot dojos, toe injuries also occurred more often.  Why? Because unshod feet don't keep the toes together in one neat, sturdy "binding", increasing the potential for stray toes to be snagged or impact at odd angles.

So, the discipline of pulling your feet back into a firm "ball of foot" became "de rigeur" in karate.  Not so in China however; there kicking was still largely an activity executed with shoes.  So it is hardly surprising then to find that the kicks in Chinese arts are overwhelmingly "toe" or "heel" kicks, not obvious "ball of foot" ones.

And when it comes to "toe" kicks, it is simply not true that the tips of the toes are always the impact point; rather (somewhat counter intuitively!), a "pointed toe" kick often indicates a ball of foot contact surface.

Consider the adjacent photo of me doing a "toe kick" from taijiquan and I'm sure you'll agree that, despite my best endeavours to extend my foot, I'm really only ever going to contact with the ball of foot (provided I chamber my foot correctly for the kick, that is!).

When does the "toe kick" actually use the toes as the contact point?

The answer is startlingly simple: it is when you kick low - to a soft target (ie. not something hard enough to necessitate the ability to break 4 boards with the tips of your toes).

This is precisely what Erik Silva did: his kick hit Takenori Sato in the solar plexus - and doubled him over.  How do we know the kick had this effect?  Didn't Sato go on to attempt a single leg takedown?  Yes, he did.  But what shouldn't escape your notice is that he also held on to that leg long after it was clear that the takedown wasn't going to work.  Indeed - he was copping a hammering from Silva, yet still didn't break from the grab.  Why?

Personally, I think this had a lot to do with a nasty toe kick from which Sato was basically trying to recover: any retreat would have required energy, tactics and composure that he couldn't muster. Having been in similar situations, I've just clung on to something for dear life. I call it the "grip reflex": you hang on to what you've got even if it isn't actually a very good thing to hang on to.  And you'll more easily fall into the "grip reflex" when you're dioriented and struggling to recover from a disabling blow.
Why would a toe kick be better for low, soft, targets than a simple "ball of foot"?  
Well first of all, the toes are more easily presented at a low level.  As a test, try to keep your foot level to the ground while in a low chamber position.  You'll find that ankle flexibility cuts both ways: it's hard to flex your ankle fully, just as it is hard to extend fully.  Both are needed for a full "ball of foot" kick to a low target.  It's no wonder that for low kicks, many people prefer "kin geri" (instep kick).  The other option is, of course, the "toe kick".  By contrast, doing a "ball of foot kick" to, say, the groin or bladder is actually not that easy - not if you want to contact without an upward scoop anyway.

Okay, so what sort of target would we be aiming for when using a toe kick?  The best example I can give is from a competition I attended with my instructor.  One competitor hadn't emptied his bladder and copped a toe kick directly into it.  The bladder burst (even though the kick wasn't all that powerful and his bladder wasn't all that full).  The lesson I took away from that was this:
Always empty your bladder before any kind of contact fighting.
But the other lesson I learned was this: you don't need much force to rupture a bladder that is even partly full.  In fact, you can do so with less force simply by reducing the surface area of your point of contact.

To me, that is exactly what Silva did to Sato.  It might not have been the bladder (it seems to have been the solar plexus, presented low because of Sato's posture) but the principle is the same: soft target, not much force, debilitating result.  Sato was felled by a classic karate "tsumasaki" - even though Silva is not a karateka.

You'll note that I haven't focused on the word "tsumasaki", or on karate as the source of this technique, because to me the issue isn't just about Okinawan fighting systems; it is about a kick that was used in all far-eastern traditional civilian arts: a conservative, low power, high yield kick that utilises a small surface area to increase pressure and reduce the need for more force to achieve the desired result.

What of Silva's other "hackey sack" kicks using the heel?  Well aside from their rather odd angle, the same principle is being applied again: small surface area, more pressure, less force needed, more damage done.  In this case, the surface is reduced by using the heel.  I've previously covered kicking with the heel, so I don't propose to do so again.  What I will do is post a traditional form (tiger and crane) that features such a backward "heel kick".  See if you can spot it.  I'll give you the tip - it looks a bit goofy!

To conclude, in my view Erik Silva's techniques here aren't examples of "karate in MMA": they are merely examples of traditional (oft-derided) low-power civilian defence techniques in MMA.  These will continue to appear from time to time.  And no doubt they will be hailed as "something new" or "crazy" or "innovative" or "one off movements" etc.  However to any practitioner of the traditional martial arts, they are often nothing new/crazy/innovative/one-off.  They are simply part of a body of ancient knowledge that is still as relevant today as it was to our ancestors who once relied on such "baser" knowledge for their day-to-day existence.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, January 2, 2014

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 my very next article I will 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.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The face of Azato

Gichin Funakoshi is well known as having had two teachers: Yasatsune (Anko) Azato and Yasatsune (Anko) Itosu.

As I pointed out in my previous article, the adjacent group photo shows Funakoshi (already a karate master in his own right) and some school students just before a demonstration to Prince Hirohito in 1921.  I have tentatively concluded (see my previous argument) that it is Funakoshi's teachers - Azato and Itosu - who are shown in the inserts (as was custom, particularly when you consider that the photo was used by Funakoshi in his 1922 book "Ryukyu kempo").

This leaves only one real question, and this is who is Azato and who is Itosu?

Having just deduced (with, I think, good reason) that the person in the right insert must be Itosu, it follows that the person on the left is Azato.  In other words, we have, for the first time, a reasonably identifiable picture of Anko Azato!

He is certainly quite distinct from the drawings we've previously seen  (see on the left) - just as distinct as the photos of Itosu are from most of the drawings depicting that master.

So finally we have a photograph of the mysterious Yasatsune "Anko" Azato - the only "known" one (see to the right).

In other words, here is the face of Funakoshi's other principal teacher - the man who might very well have taught him techniques such as the "haiwan nagashi uke" which the shotokan school uses in its tekki (naihanchi) shodan kata (as opposed to the chudan uke done at this point in most other Itosu-based schools).

On that (hopefully interesting) observation, I'd like to thank all my readers for their patronage this year and wish you all a very happy 2014!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, December 30, 2013

The face of Itosu

Few karate masters have exerted as much influence as Yasatsune "Anko" Itosu (1831 – 11 March 1915) - the alleged creator of the pinan kata and possibly the naihanchi series; teacher of such luminaries as Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Chomo Hanashiro, Chotoku Kyan, Shinpan Shiroma, Choshin Chibana and Kenwa Mabuni - among many others.

It would be fair to say that, while his legendary teacher Sokon Matsumura is regarded as the start point of the Suidi or Shorin school of karate, the real "father" of this school was Itosu.

I will let you read Tom Ross's excellent articles on concerning the man and his legacy.  I also invite you to read my article on the Channan kata and on the origins of Naihanchi.

But what did Itosu look like?  Is the picture to the right really him?

Until 2006 the only images we had of Itosu were drawings - and conflicting ones at that.  Specifically there were 3 main ones to be found on the net.

Two seemed quite similar, depicting Itosu's famously fierce gaze.  Indeed, if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say one was actually based on the other (as was common during that era - they didn't have photocopiers or digital images to download!).

These drawings imply that Itosu was a broad shouldered, physically imposing man, so at least in this respect they seem to be accurate.

[Indeed, somewhere around 2006/7, I removed the photograph at the start of this essay from my our Academy's karate history web page after receiving an email complaint from a high-ranking shorin-ryu karateka that this was "not Itosu" but rather another karate master (I seem to recall reference was made to Hanashiro Chomo).  I replaced the photograph with the second of these images on the strength of that complaint (I was, at that time, unaware of the McCarthy article)!]

Notably, both pictures show an older man with a full head of hair, a beard and a thin moustache.  I have not been able to find the source of these pictures, but I assume they were drawn based on verbal accounts rather than as part of a "portrait sitting".

On the other hand we also have third drawing of Itosu which can be found in Frank Hargrove's book "The 100 year history of shorin-ryu karate".  Again, this drawing is said to be a composite based on oral descriptions.

The picture in Hargrove's book is notably used in the first of the Itosu articles by Tom Ross on

Interestingly, this picture shows a younger man.  He has no beard, a very thick moustache and, somewhat strangely, he is wearing a western shirt (typical of the late 1800s), suit and tie.

The salient point to note is that this third drawing seems to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the other two.  Where the others seemed to be copied from each other (right down to the kimono neckline), this third drawing seems totally out of place.  Who would think to draw a karate master in western garb?  Why not show his famously broad shoulders?

Then on Tuesday 28 February 2006, Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy published the following article in the Okinawa Times, revealing the first known photograph of Itosu.

The picture was formerly in the possession of karate master Kinjo Hiroshi who donated it, along with 3,000 other photographs in his collection, to the Okinawa Prefecture Library to be used for historical research.

It was authenticated by Dr Kadekaru Toru the Ryukyu cultural anthropologist, and chief curator for Okinawa prefectural office of historically important documents.

It seems the photograph was taken in 1909 or 1910 when Itosu had started teaching middle school in Okinawa.  If the date is correct, Itosu would have been around 78 or 79 at the time.  It depicts Itsou as a bald, broad-shouldered man with a large moustache.

In a Facebook discussion I was informed by Scott Vogt (quoting his teacher, reknowned karate researcher Joe Swift, who was in turn reading from a Japanese-language martial arts magazine) that Kinjo Sensei received this photo in approximately 1980 from a man (apparently by the name of Arasaki) who in turn received it from a man named Tokuda - one is one of the students in the photo. According to Scott:
"Tokuda-san said that Itosu is in this photo. Kinjo Sensei was unable to meet with Tokuda-san and figure out which one was Itosu. Tokuda-san subsequently passed away. In 1985 Kinjo-Sensei met with the son of Tokuda-san who confirmed that his father was in this photo but not which one was Itosu. Kinjo Sensei also met with the grandson of Itosu who could only say that he had faint memories of his grandfather but remembered facial hair but could not say whether it was a beard, mustache or both. In 2006 Kinjo sent some of his collection to the Okinawa museum and a curator there (I don’t know his name) digitized the photo and used computer enhancement to reveal more detail. The hands of the older, mustached gentleman showed large knuckles indicative of makiwara training. Also other descriptions of Itosu mention wearing an older kimono with no family crest. Taking all of these things together it was concluded by the museum curator that the older man with the mustache, large knuckles and plain kimono was Itosu."
I take it that the "museum curator" referred to is Dr Kadekaru Toru who authenticated the picture.

This was further clarified on the same Facebook thread by "Kuma Koryukan Frederick" as follows:
"Arasaki Seibin (the late honorary professor of Tokyo University) received the photo from Tokuda Antei’s [personal] album (Tokuda was an early student of Itosu’s) The photo was taken to commemorate a judo & kendo competition [probably held at Okinawa Prefectural Middle School] You can clearly see the judo and Kendo participants in the full photo. The school principle Okubo Shuhachi, and Judo Sensei Ikeda Takehiko are also in the photo. The photo was digitized and authenticated by Kadekaru Toru, the chief specialist from the Okinawa prefectural office of historically important documents."
It seems beyond doubt that this is indeed the face of Itosu - the cropped one featuring at the start of this essay.

So where does this place the previously-mentioned drawings?

It seems to me that the first two are wildly off-base.  But the third picture is intriguing: the moustache and general facial proportions seem to match.  The biggest difference appears to be the full head of  hair.  But then again, men do tend to lose hair as they age.

Then I came across the image on this web page, purportedly showing not only Itosu, but a young Gichin Funakoshi (and even, improbably, Kenwa Mabuni) taken circa 1880.

[I say "improbably" in relation to Mabuni because, as was pointed out by Mike Akins, if the photograph was taken in 1880, that would make Itosu (seated) around 49, Funakoshi (to the right) around 12 - with Mabuni (purportedly standing) yet to be born for another 9 years or so!]

What of the suggestion that the picture shows Funakoshi?  I'd say the likelihood is high based on physical features.  Indeed, the trademark look seems immediately apparent - at least to me!  [I can see why someone might have thought the standing figure was Mabuni - but really, the resemblance is nothing more than passing compared to the boy who looks like Funakoshi.]

So what of the suggestion that the seated adult is Itosu?  I can't help but observe that there is an almost identical match between this man and the man depicted in the "third" drawing of Itosu above.  Note the western suit and tie - right down the collar.  Certainly the moustache is the same.  If it weren't for the shorter hair cut, I might have assumed the drawing was copied from this photograph.

Unfortunately, the site makes no reference to where this photograph was sourced.  It might, or might not, be Itosu.  I initially thought that it would be highly unlikely for it to have been Itosu for one specific reason: he seemed to have too much hair.  I reasoned that men who exhibit male-pattern baldness typically do so from a younger age.  Itosu was more or less bald in his late 70s as shown in the authenticated picture - yet here, in his late 40s, he still has a full head of hair.

Synchronously however, I happened to be reading about Ron van Clief.  I noted that he still had a full head of hair in his late 40s and early 50s.

But now he is almost completely bald.

It seems that my reasoning regarding male-pattern baldness was incorrect: at least some men can keep a full head of hair through middle age, only to lose it in later life (I'm assuming here that van Clief isn't just shaving his head as a fashion statement).

This made me revisit this photograph, the third drawing and the authenticated one.  I now lean towards the view that the 1880 photo does indeed show a middle-aged Itosu.  I reach this conclusion tentatively, based on the fact that the physical features (eg. the moustache, chin, eyes) match, as well as the similarity between the third drawing and the 1880 photo (right down to the part in the hair, the moustache and the suit/tie/collar).

So I will conclude (at least until better evidence comes along) that there are in fact two extant photographs of Itosu: one (authenticated) one of Itosu in his late 70s, and one (unauthenticated) one of him from 30 years earlier.

If anyone has any information about the 1880 photo, I'd love to hear from you!

In the meantime, my friend Lindsay McKenzie has also alerted me to the photo from Richard Kim's book "Weaponless Warriors" of Gichin Funakoshi (seated with arms crossed?) and some school students (who, it seems, were karate students of Funakoshi's colleague and fellow Itosu student, Kentsu Yabu).  It was taken on 6 March 1921 shortly before an exhibition before Prince Hirohito.  Yabu was away in the US during this demonstration, requiring Funakoshi to fill in as the demonstration leader.

It is significant to note that the photo was originally published Funakoshi's 1922 book "Ryukyu Kempo" (a year after the demo) - subsequently republished as "Karate Jutsu".  Why it this significant?  Because it shows that the photograph was selected by Funakoshi as representative of his art of karate - including his lineage.

Accordingly I think it is reasonable to assume that the photograph depicts Anko Itosu on the right insert (note the same collar and suit) and Anko Azato on the left insert - since both were Funakoshi's karate teachers.

In fact, I would be flabbergasted if these insert pictures didn't depict Azato and Itosu: karate is very much an art in which one's teachers are revered:  As Mark Chisenhall put it "If I were putting a picture together of a famous and prestigious event such as demostrating in front of the emperor of Japan, I would include a reference to my teachers. For without our teachers, the event would not be possible."  I think it is doubly so when you are putting together a picture for your own book on karate.

So I think the only real question is who is who.  I think there can be no real doubt that the picture on the right is Itosu given the congruence with the drawing and the 1880 picture.

The Itosu picture on the right seems to from around 1890 to 1900.  I note that the hair seems to be thinning (relative to the drawing and the 1880 picture).

Otherwise, I think the congruence of these pictures is undeniable: this is indeed the face of
Anko Itosu.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic