I recently shared on Instagram a post with some considerations about uke-waza 受け技 in karate (an expression often mistranslated as “blocking techniques”), in the context of the practical application of the shutō-uke 手刀受け technique in the Pinan Shodan kata (Heian Nidan). To open this article, I would like to recall the video and text that accompanied it in the post in question:

Shutō-uke” 手刀受け. What does this really mean? The idea that certain kata techniques must necessarily be interpreted as “uke-waza” 受け技 has no historical base. As it seems, the original names to the kata techniques didn’t actually survive the move towards modern karate (and if we consider how figurative certain apparently older names such as “nami-gaeshi” are, it turns out that the original names were probably nothing like the ordinary descriptions modernly used). Moreover, the very word “uke” 受け doesn’t even mean “block” or “defense”, meaning instead something around the idea of “reception” (that is, a technique you use for “receiving the opponent’s action”). That is, even if you think of a technique as an “uke-waza“, there are still several ways of receiving the opponent’s action: passively, reactively or even proactively. It’s definitely not merely about “blocking”. And there’s more to this story, for example the fact that most “uke-waza” in kata are performed with a forward advance, pointing suspiciously to the idea that those techniques should be used aggressively. It’s a long discussion, but in the end it just means you should never assume a kata technique is a “defense” just because it’s been modernly called “uke“. Instead of clinging to the modern terminology to determine function, it’s better to use the historical, contextual, logical, technical and practical evidence available to us to understand the bunkai, to determine the meaning of the kata techniques. And I tell you: there’s a lot of evidence available, and it points towards the idea that shutō-uke is much more than a mere “knife hand block”.

I wrote the text above very carefully, and I hope that the reader is attentive to all the information contained in it. It is a very important starting point. But, as I said in the text, this is a long discussion. So, after publishing this post on Instagram, several commentators raised very interesting questions, which motivated me to delve deeper into the issue in this article. Let’s move on!

In karate you really use “defensive techniques”

Uke-waza is a complex and sometimes controversial subject (due to the misunderstanding of many practitioners). However, I have the confidence to say a few things on the subject, and the first is that we need, can and should apply “receiving techniques” (a better translation for uke-waza) when we face an aggression. Yes, anyone who says that there are no reactive/defensive techniques in karate is completely wrong (believe me, there are people who say that). In fact, even professional fighters often use different types of defensive techniques in their fights. It is important, however, to understand that uke-waza goes far beyond what is normally called “defenses” or “blocks”. To begin with, even if we only think about the defensive function of karate maneuvers, a wide range of actions will be included: withdrawal, obstruction, interception, redirection, cancellation, absorption and, finally, protective counterattack. It is also worth noting: these various actions are fluid and adapt freely to the opponent’s movements, and can also be combined with each other, with the simultaneous or consecutive application of several of them. Here is a brief description of how these forms of “defense techniques” work:

  • Withdrawal: you remove your body or the part of your body that was the target of the opponent’s attack from its original position. For example, quickly moving your head back (a form of dodging) when your opponent punches you in the head. It is a technique that can and should be used even at close range, but is particularly popular in long-range fighting situations, such as in boxing and other modern martial arts.
  • Obstruction: you interpose a stronger part of your body to protect a weaker part that is under attack. For example, placing your arms in front of your head. This is the most typical form of what we could properly call “blocking” and, like the withdrawal, it is also quite popular in long-range fights (but it also has its role in all fighting situations). The obstruction has, in a way, a particular disadvantage, which is the fact that the impact tends to occur at a late moment, when the opponent’s blow is at maximum speed, hitting the barrier with greater accumulated energy. However, it is a method that has the important advantage of not requiring a very advanced technical level for its execution, and can even be used by means of the defender’s natural instinct, in the phenomenon that we can call “flinch reflex”.
  • Interception: you meet the opponent’s attack, usually with one or both arms/hands, or with one leg, to intercept the attacking limb as soon as possible, as soon as the movement is perceived. It’s almost like “attacking the opponent’s attack”. In this sense, we have the lesson of master Chōki Motobu: “We must always try to block the attack at its origin”. Compared with the obstruction method, the interception has the advantage of meeting the opponent’s attack at a time when the blow has not yet reached maximum speed, so that the defender will receive a much more tolerable impact. It is a method that in some ways requires more skill than the obstruction method, and is normally used for short and mainly medium-range defense.
  • Redirection: your hand or arm (or other part of your body) is already in contact with the opponent’s attacking limb (usually the arm), so that when you feel the latter’s movement, you immediately redirect that movement, and the attacking limb is deflected away from the target. It’s a form of defense in which you exert a lot of control over your opponent’s limb. As you can see, it is a short-range technique, when the involved parties are already in contact, and it is closely related to the ancient Okinawan principle of muchimi ムチミ.
  • Cancellation: you grab and hold the potentially attacking limb before it even begins its movement, so that any attempt by the opponent to attack you with that limb is canceled right from the start. It is a very close-range technique, normally used in combination with gripping methods such as tsukamite or kakaete and, again, has an important relationship with the principle of muchimi.
  • Absorption: it is certainly the least desirable method of receiving an attack, but strictly speaking it is also a possible, and sometimes even viable, way. Basically, depending on the part of the body that is under attack and the power of the blow, you can simply resist the impact, “accepting” the possible damage that the opponent’s attack can cause. In very specific situations, there may be reasonable tactical value to this method. For example, you can absorb a blow to the arm, leg, or even abdomen, while you simultaneously hit your opponent in a more vital spot, like the jaw or temple. Again, in the words of Chōki Motobu: “One does not have to take care to block every single attack by an opponent with weak striking power.”
  • Protective counterattack: at any moment of the confrontation, you take the initiative and attack the opponent, so that, neutralized by the attacks received, the opponent loses the ability to launch his own attacks. It is worth noting that you can counterattack after, simultaneously or even before the opponent’s attack, but, in any case, every attack that responds to an unjust aggression is a kind of counterattack and, as such, is also a form of “receiving” the opponent’s offensive action. Strictly speaking, you can even counterattack with the same movement you use to intercept an opponent’s attack (using what the Okinawan master Morinobu Itoman called kōshu 攻守, “offensive defense”).

Protective counterattacks

By entering the domain of protective counterattacks, we discover a whole new world for the use of what we now know as uke-waza. Particularly in the context of bunkai (analysis) of kata, these techniques can and should ideally be interpreted not only as reactive and defensive maneuvers (as seen above), but also, and especially, should be interpreted as having a proactive and offensive nature. It is worth mentioning: these techniques are not just attacks, since they still contain control and defense components. However, along with these components, yes, you should use uke-waza to attack your opponent.

In this sense, it is worth noting here that the idea of ​​using techniques called uke-waza as forms of attack is not exclusive to old style karate. In modern karate there are several records of masters describing and even demonstrating this possibility. See for example the words of Masatoshi Nakayama:

“[…] a blocking technique, depending on how it is used, may become a decisive technique [that is, an attack]. This can be seen often in karate-do”

Given these words, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the lesson of using uke-waza with an offensive function was even presented in the classic video series from the 80s (republished in 1996) by the Japan Karate Association (JKA), as we can see in the video below, demonstrating an application for shutō-uke:

In the lesson by Ei’Ichi Miyazato, founder of Jundokan (Okinawa Goju-ryu), we can see a gedan-barai 下段払い being used to attack the opponent’s genital region:

In the same vein is the teaching from Kenwa Mabuni, with the application of a gedan-barai present in the Seipai kata:

Still on the same subject, master Gichin Funakoshi offers extremely revealing words:

“However there are times, depending upon the moment, or adjusting to a changing situation, when the defensive hand becomes an offensive hand. This is called “hente” (“changing hands”), and frequently in actual cases it is more effective than the orthodox use”.

Ultimately, we must not forget one of the main lessons taught by karate kata: the karateka (i.e., the responder to unjust aggression) should ideally attack continuously until the aggressor is defeated. Receiving continuous attacks, the aggressor will be overwhelmed and will be too busy defending himself, thus having less opportunity to take the initiative and carry out his own attacks. To illustrate this lesson, here is a video where I demonstrate applications of the Pinan Nidan (Shorin-ryu) kata with a continuous sequence of attacks, from the first to the last movement, in what we call renzoku bunkai 連続分解:

If you think this renzoku bunkai approach is exotic, you might be surprised to see that it is also adopted by Okinawan practitioners, such as Masaji Taira of the Okinawa Goju-ryu Kenkyukai:

On the fundamental lesson of karate that the practitioner must seize and maintain the initiative, Chōki Motobu summarized:

Karate wa sente de aru” 唐手は先手である。– “Karate is initiative”.

Still on the topic of counterattacks, I would like to remember that offensive applications do not necessarily use impact techniques. Karate is an eclectic art and, as such, uke-waza can also be used as joint locks, balance breaking/throws, or strikes on especially fragile vital points on the body (kyūsho). To illustrate this, we have the image below where I demonstrate the application of a gedan shutō-uke as a joint lock:

Two caveats

At the beginning of this article I highlighted the fact that karateka must, indeed, use defensive maneuvers. Later on, I explore the offensive nature of the uke-waza of the kata. But, if the uke-waza present in the kata are offensive in nature, and the kata are the fundamental source of karate techniques, where does the defensive aspect of this martial art come from? The answer is: the defensive aspect comes from the kata techniques themselves, which are not merely “offensive”, since they also work with defense and control. Furthermore, it is also present in the fundamental principles of the art (normally taught in the form of kuden 口伝, “oral transmissions”), such as muchimi. This defensive aspect can be observed when we realize that kata often teaches us to attack the opponent with movements that run along the same lines of the likely attacks that the opponent could launch against us. For example, after attacking the opponent’s genital region with a gedan-barai (as if it were a tettsui-uchi 鉄槌打ち, as we saw above in the photo from Ei’Ichi Miyazato’s lesson), if the opponent has defended himself in the lower body, the most likely path for our next attack, as taught by the kata, will probably be towards the upper part of the opponent’s body (something I demonstrate in my video above, from Pinan Nidan’s renzoku bunkai). And, in the same way, the most likely path (because it is more open) for the opponent to attack us will also be towards the upper part, above the arms that were involved in the attack and defense of the gedan-barai. The consequence of this is that our next attack has a high probability of clashing with a possible simultaneous counterattack from the opponent, and with this clash our attacking limb will have acquired the role of a defending limb, as a form of interception of the opponent’s attack.

This defensive use of apparently offensive techniques (and also the opposite, the offensive use of apparently defensive techniques) is beautifully summarized by Morinobu Itoman, as follows:

“Therefore an offensive technique can be defensive, or a defensive technique can be offensive; they are the same”.

This is a lesson we learn extremely clearly when we practice kake kumite or kakedameshi, as we do extensively in Muidokan. In addition to the interception method, other forms of defense (that is, the receiving function) are also implicitly included in the kata, as well as various forms of control (remembering that control can be used defensively). Thus, it is common for kata to teach how to perform attacks that naturally obstruct our vital points against the opponent’s attacks, at the same time that the opponent’s body has its movements and its attack capacity limited through control techniques (which we have covered extensively in this article). In addition to all this, understanding and applying the muchimi principle grants the karateka a broad defensive capacity, which I cover in this article (with a video showing the techniques against a non-compliant opponent).

The second caveat concerns the famous motto “Karate ni sent nashi” 空手に先手なし, often translated as “There is no first attack in karate”, but which can also be translated as “There is no offensive initiative in karate”. On this subject, suffice it to say that the motto clearly constitutes a teaching of a philosophical or moral nature, and does not mean that you need to wait for your opponent to launch the first attack in situations of unjust aggression, whether already underway or imminent. The karateka must always take the initiative, as was well put by Genwa Nakasone:

“[…] However, in the rare instance when you must fight, you should always take the initiative, as this is only logical.”

After all, there is nothing new

Given all this, it is necessary to conclude that the extensive use of uke-waza not only to defend, but also to control and especially to attack, as we do in Muidokan, is nothing more than a rigorous application of teachings that come from ancient karate, but which have for the most part survived the change to modern karate in the form of historical fragments. We have simply put these fragments together and reconstructed the original figure.

It is also worth remembering what was said at the beginning of this article: the expression uke-waza was given in modern times to certain karate techniques, but there is no historical evidence that the expression necessarily corresponds to the original idea behind these techniques. Thus, we should not become attached to this terminology when seeking to determine the function of techniques, and instead should use the historical, contextual, logical, technical and practical evidence available to understand the bunkai, that is, to determine the meaning of the movements of kata.

A final contribution

Finally, in this last image that I bring to you, I show several of the most basic uke-waza in karate, applied with the three fundamental functions – control, defense, and attack in particular – all at the same time. Now you too can add these applications to your karate arsenal.

A great training to everyone!


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