Karate Ni Sente Nashi

No First Strike?

“Karate ni sente nashi,” means “in karate there is no first strike.” This statement figuratively means that the karate-ka does not initiate violence. Karate was always and a defensive martial art. The initiation of a strike is offense and thus is contrary to the defensive attitude of the well-trained karate-ka.

Before conflict degenerates into a fight the wise karate-ka attempts to prevent the eruption of violence. Often times she is able to abort violence by listening carefully, hearing what is being said, delving into the escalating causes of friction and feelings, and negotiation of the conflict. The escalation slows and stops, hopefully, before violence begins.

There are many hundreds of thousands of violent crimes (murder, rape, battery, robbery) reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation every year. The violent crime’s conflict has gone beyond negotiation. Perhaps not all violent crimes can be prevented by negotiation but when there is a possibility that violence can be avoided that possibility should be attempted. If any reasonable opportunity exists to negotiate violence to non-violence and a martial artist does not attempt the negotiation then she degrades her art and “karate ni sente nashi.”

I will not deal with the de-escalating of conflict here, it is a subject of immense proportion. Hopefully, sometime soon I will.

Offense and Provocation?

So, then, the violent opponent throws the first strike.

You are in a tactical situation. You may counter if you desire. Or you may absorb the strike and try again at conflict negotiation.

In the latter case, it works sometimes, but you better be the kind of person who can take the strike and come up smiling. I once saw a friend, one Bill Longman, take a series of stomach punches from an irate opponent.

At the end Bill, looked up at the man who had just hit him and calmly said, “what did you do that for?” The opponent was totally humiliated and apologized. The strategy worked. But, it doesn’t often. You have to be physically strong enough to take the strikes and emotionally strong enough not to respond in like, i.e., retaliation and more violence.

The next step is not to get hit. Your choices include to block the incoming strike, malposition so that you do not get hit, disbalance your opponent so that he has no power in his strike. This is what is called “Sen.” Sen is the same character as the “sen’ in “sen-sei.” It means before. In the fight you block the strike before it reaches you. You do not get hit. Your opponent’s power dissipates off-target. You have been missed.

This may not be enough, though. You have neutralized your opponent’s power on that one strike or on that one series of strikes but you have not necessarily neutralized your opponent’s intent to destroy you. He is likely to attempt another sortie unless you take control of the situation and resolve the conflict. If he is still in the violent frame of mind the fight rages onward again almost instantly.

On the other hand the block you performed may have taken some of the wind out of his sails! It was certainly done by Itosu on Tomoyose at the Ude-Kake-Shi last century. Tomoyose, after provocation by Itosu, attacked Itosu. Itosu blocked with a sharp shuto-uke. Tomoyose suffered a broken arm. That was the end of the violence. All would have been well except that Itosu was the propagator of the violence. Itosu’s Sensei, Bushi Matsumura, was displeased.

The question arose did Itosu break “karate ni sente nashi?” He did not throw the first strike but he did provoke Tomoyose into throwing the first strike. Is there a difference? Does provocation of violence constitute the first real strike in violence? Although the letter of the law is met for “karate ni sente nashi” and Itosu was not truly the person to throw the first strike, he failed at “karate ni sente nashi” for he provoked the first attack.

In karate there is the power of the attacker and the intent of the attacker. Consciously to provoke an attack is to incite intent. Assuming the attacker is a weak-minded individual he may just gulp the bait and go for violence. Was the attacker the prime cause or the victim of a devious person who desires a “good fight?” I submit to you that the power of the attacker is not the only aspect of violence that “karate ni sente nashi” deals with. It also deals with the intent of the attacker. The karate-ka consciously insulting the heritage of a person is throwing the first strike at his opponent just as much as the karate-ka who begins with a strike to his opponent’s face. If the intent is incited by the karate-ka, he has failed “karate ni sente nashi.”

Preventive Necessity

The third thing the karate ka can do is to preempt the violence. This is often the wisest thing to do when faced with multiple opponents. Let us say that three opponents accost you on the street at near midnight. You sense they are intent on destroying you. They surround you just beyond mae distance and begin the close-to-a-kill kamae of hoodlums. You recognize the leader by his demeanor and actions. Before any one of the three get a chance to begin their attack, you attack the leader with a powerful enough strike to drop him for ten minutes, dispatch the second with a strike to the neck before he even raises his arms in defense, and kick the third opponent in the groin as he stands there in awe of what has just occurred. All three opponents lie on the ground now, and you weren’t even hit, as a matter of fact you didn’t even have to block a strike. Did you fail “karate ni sente nashi?”

You threw the first and only three blows of the violence. You dispatched three human beings into pain and suffering. Your actions are certainly in question.

Only when we factor in the intent of your opponents do we get a better picture of “karate ni sente nashi.” What were your opponents’ intents? They surrounded you at midnight. They closed mae. They assumed kamae, even if only American streetgang type nonchalant kamae. There were three of them and an identifiable leader. Their intents were probably violent for such actions as the above can hardly be interpreted as altruistic.

If you felt your life was in danger by their intent your first attack is defense. The war broke out when they stepped across the line of intent and into your personal protected space. Where the line is and the space begins cannot be defined exactly for every person and every situation but the well-trained martial artist wants to learn when that intent line has been crossed and when her personal protected space has been violated.

When you feel the breach in peace it is time to strike. Martial artists call this “preventive necessity.” The war has begun. The person who throws the first strike is immaterial. The war began with mobilization, entrapment and perceived intent. There is obviously and unavoidable intent on the parts of three opponents. You would be foolish to delay until after the first physical strike is thrown at you when you might dispatch one opponent before the others even recognize their leader has fallen.

Preventive necessity is not to be used flippantly. If we are to strive for what is best in our culture and in society in general we must aim at non-violence. “Karate ni sente nashi” is a noble goal for the martial artist. The well-trained martial artist, however, may find certain situations as the one mentioned above, as conditions where she justifiably throws the physical first strike without breaching “karate ni sente nashi.”

Kata Begin with Defense

Matthias Jost made the following observation:

“I find it interesting that the principle “karate ni sente nashi” is obviously seen in the katas, which all (or are there exceptions?) start with a defensive technique.”

In Aoinagi Karate the gyo kata are a core; Here they are, along with their first kihon’s application;

Naihanchi-grasp of an attack or block
Aoinagi-grasp of an attack
Bassai-stop or release depending on interpretation
Nijushiho-grasp of an attack
Saifa-evasion with counterattack