Japanese in Karate - Part 2

Japanese in Karate - Part 2

This article was written by Philip Whittome of the Guildhall Wadokai in London (great club and a lovely group of people). The aim of this article is to give people who do not speak Japanese a better understanding of the correct pronunciation etc of the Japanese terms that are used in everyday karate training. I think that is a great piece of writing that is very informative and very easy to follow.

Philip read Japanese at Cambridge and graduated with a Double First class degree. He also studied for a year at Keio University in Tokyo and Nanzan University in Nagoya . Philip trained in Wado-Ryu at Meiji University in Tokyo during this period, and was later on the Cambridge University karate team (Shotokan). He then took a break from karate for a number of years, but is now currently studying under Ken Harrison (4th dan) at the Guildhall Wadokai in London , part of the East London Wadokai. 

If any of you would like to contact Philip he can be emailed at: philip.whittome@investecmail.com

I feel sure that you'll enjoy and learn from this article and I'm very grateful to Philip for allowing us to feature it on this site.

All the best,



By Philip Whittome


In Part 1 we looked at basic Japanese pronunciation and counting. In Part 2 we'll look at the meaning of the kata names, some very basic grammar, and some bits of words to build up your vocabulary.

Kata Names

Kata names are quite difficult to translate, as the names as used in Wado, Shitoryu and Gojuryu are not really in mainstream Japanese - they are the traditional names of the kata in Okinawan dialect. The names for the same kata in Shotokan are "Japanified" versions made up by Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan and the man who introduced karate to mainland Japan , to make them more acceptable to mainland Japanese. However, as far as I know the Okinawan names should also be pronounced in line with the usual Japanese pronunciation outlined above.

The meanings of the original Okinawa-dialect kata names used by the major styles other than Shotokan are hard to pin down, not least because there is clearly some uncertainty about the true meanings of many of the names, even among the experts. About the only thing that is clear is that kata names are very unusual in terms of the Japanese used in karate, most of which is rather severely literal, as they are quite poetic and/or pretentious (depending on how cynical you are about these things). One exception is the several kata with "number names", whose name is simply a number. There are a number of theories as to what the numbers mean, as they do not seem to have a direct relationship to the number of either steps, or movements, in the kata. One theory is that these numbers have some sort of astrological or numerological meaning, but even if this is true, exactly what the meaning of the number is for each of these kata is lost in mysticism. The other exception is those kata named after an individual, like Kushanku, Chinto and possibly Wanshu and some others, where the kata appear to have been put together by the disciples of a specific famous martial artist to record his best techniques - as a sort of mnemonic, in an age when literacy was less universal than it is now.

Nevertheless, I have had a stab at translating them, though this comes with a severe health warning, in that my research has been sketchy to say the least, and may be wrong in several cases. Apologies for any errors in advance. The meanings, in so far as I have been able to research them for at least most of the major kata, are as follows:

Pinan - "peace and tranquillity"

Kushanku / Kosokun - Name of a Chinese official who is said to have travelled to Okinawa in 1762

Naihanchi - "fighting on the dyke between rice paddies" (probably in reference to being performed in one straight line)

Chinto - Name of a Chinese sailor who travelled to Okinawa , whose name literally means "Eastern battle" or "fighting towards the East"

Passai / Bassai - "entering the fortress" OR "rescuing from a fortress" (uncertain)

Wanshu - "flying swallow" OR named after a famous Okinawan karateka called Suppashi Wanshu (uncertain)

Jion - Unknown, possibly named after a Buddhist monk who invented the kata, or a common Buddhist temple name

Jitte - "ten hands" OR "hand technique" (uncertain)

Rohai - "symbol of the heron" OR "clear mirror" (uncertain)

Wankan - "king's crown"

Unsu - "cloud hands"

Shisochin - "battle in four directions"

Sanchin    - "three battles"

Tensho - "revolving hands"

Saifa - "extreme destruction"

Seienchin - "subdue the rebellious outpost"

Kururunfa - "holding your ground" (very uncertain)

Seishan / Seisan    - "thirteen" (see comments on numbers above)

Seipai - "eighteen" (see comments on numbers above)

Niseishi - "twenty-four" (see comments on numbers above)

Sanseru    - "thirty-six" (see comments on numbers above)

Gojushiho - "fifty-four directions" (see comments on numbers above)

Suparimpei - "one hundred and eight" (see comments on numbers above)

Basic Grammar

Really just a couple of very basic points, don't worry. Apologies to any Japanese speakers who read this - yes I know I am simplifying things quite a bit, but if you already speak Japanese then why are you reading this anyway? Just to pick holes?

Verbs and Nouns

First, a word or two about verb forms. All Japanese verbs end in "-u". Thus, the verb "to kick" is "keru", or the verb "to punch" is "tsuku". OK so far?

To turn any verb into a noun (more or less), just knock off the final "-u" and replace it with "-i". Thus, "keri" means "a kick", and "tsuki" means "a punch". Simple, isn't it?

One final step. To get the "-ing" ending in English, as in "kicking", take off the whole final syllable from the Japanese verb, and replace it with "-tte". Thus, "kette" means "kicking". Similarly, "mawatte" means "turning", from the verb "mawaru", to turn, and "okutte" literally means "sending", from the verb "okuru", to send.

All I am really trying to achieve by this explanation is some basic understanding of the link between the two often-heard words "keri" and "kette", for instance - I repeat, personally I always find it easier to remember what I understand, rather than just rote learning.


In English, we have prepositions, words like "in", "to" or "for" etc. These are called PREpositions because their position is BEFORE the word they apply to, as in sentences like "I was born in London " (where the word "in" applies to " London ") or "Bow to the Sensei" (where the word "to" applies to "the Sensei"). Japanese has very similar words, the only difference being that they are called POSTpositions because they come AFTER the word they apply to. Thus, translating "Bow to the Sensei" into Japanese, we get "Sensei ni rei". The word "rei" means "bow", and the word "ni" means "to", and applies to the word it comes AFTER - in this case, Sensei. Seems weird, back-to-front? That's exactly what the Japanese say about the English language. Actually, there are some parallels in English, like the use of the s-apostrophe, as in the phrase "Tom's pen", which of course means the same as "the pen of Tom". In Japanese, the word for "of" is "no", so translating this phrase into Japanese we would get "Tom no pen" - exactly the same word order as "Tom's pen". Here is a list of some major Japanese postpositions, though to be honest the only ones you are likely to need to know are "ni", "no" and "de":

Japanese word & Meaning

ni = to, for

no = of

de = at, in

e = to, towards

kara = from


One final grammar thing - there are no plurals in Japanese whatsoever. Thus, we speak of one kata, two kata, three kata. Don't put an "s" on the end. Just think of it like the English word "sheep". You wouldn't say one sheep, two sheeps, three sheeps, would you? (At least I hope not). Same in Japanese.

Words and Bits of Words

I am NOT going to put down a glossary of all Japanese karate terms here - that would be reinventing the wheel, there are lots of versions of this available. Instead, let's look at the bits that make up words.

Japanese is what is technically called an "agglutinative" language, like German, which simply means that you can stick words together to make up longer words. Thus, in English we have "front kick" as two separate words, but in Japanese the two words "mae" and "keri" get stuck together to make ONE word, "maegeri". Most of the words you encounter in the Japanese used in karate, the names of techniques etc., are like this.

What follows is a list of the most frequently appearing "building blocks", each of them a word in its own right, which go towards making up the terms you are likely to encounter. I include the "cloudy" pronunciation of the word as well as the original pronunciation (see Part 1), and also some comments on the literal meaning of the word where appropriate, as this can be quite enlightening as to how you should approach techniques psychologically. For instance, formal stances used in basic training are often called "tachi", from the verb "to stand", whereas fighting stances are often called "kamae", from the verb "to be prepared".

One further point to note is that unlike the kata names above, almost all the Japanese used in karate is very literal and everyday. The image of using Japanese in karate can often be that you are being pretentious and showing off using ostentatious terms for things - actually you are being very down-to-earth, just in a different language!

Once again, I repeat - you don't NEED to know any of this, you can just learn all the long words by rote, but personally I always find it easier to remember what I understand.

Japanese word & Meaning

tsuki, zuki = a punch

keri, geri = a kick

uchi = a strike

uke = a block (literally "receiving" something)

harai, barai = a sweep (literally "brushing something away")

tachi, dachi = a stance (from the verb meaning "to stand")

kamae, gamae = a stance (from the verb meaning "to be prepared")

tai = a stance (literally "body")

kette = kicking

okutte = advancing (from the verb meaning "to send")

mawatte = turning

age = rising

kizami = cutting

komi, -kkomi = penetrating, fully committing, with intent, thrusting (this is a really hard word to translate. It comes from the verb "komu", which has several meanings, including "to be crowded", "to be full of something". In karate, it is usually taken to mean just "with force", but I think the true meaning involves two concepts. One is the idea of "filling up" the technique with total commitment, the other is the concept of "penetrating", so that your blow does not end at your opponent's skin but well inside his body. Thinking of it like this probably helps your subconscious understanding of how to perform such techniques)

mae = front

ushiro = rear

ura = back (of something, not the bit above your bottom)

hai = back of something (as in haishu, "back of hand")

yoko = side

hidari = left

migi = right

tate = upright, vertical (as in tateken, "upright fist")

gyaku = reverse

jun = direct (literally "standard", "regular")

enpi = elbow strike (interestingly, enpi is not the usual Japanese word for elbow, which is "hiji")

hiza = knee

ken = fist

to = sword (as in sokuto, "foot sword", or shuto, "hand sword")

te = hand

shu = hand (you may ask, why have two words for hand? The answer is, these are not two words, they are simply two different ways of pronouncing the same character , so they are actually the same word. This is where it all starts getting a bit technical - I suggest if you want a further explanation give me a ring, otherwise don't worry about it)

ashi = foot

soku = foot (you guessed it, two different pronunciations of the same character)

ma = true

han = half

mi = body (as in mahanmi, literally "true half body" i.e. "body fully turned halfway away from your opponent", or hanmi, literally "half body", "body turned partway away from your opponent")

kyu = class (as in "first class")

dan = level (as you know, this comes after the word it applies to, so "jodan" is "upper level", "nidan" is "second level" or "two levels", and so on)

uchi = inner

soto = outer

ge = lower

jo = upper

chu = middle

naka = middle (again, two different pronunciations of the same character)

hon, bon, -ppon = (a bit difficult to explain - this is a "counter" for abstract things, just as we say "a SLICE of toast" or "a SHEET of paper". "Hon" could best perhaps be translated as "a unit". So "ippon kumite" means "single unit kumite", with the unit in this case being one full point score)

neko = cat (as in nekoashidachi, "cat foot stance")

kata = form, shape

sono ba = literally "that place (where you are)", so "sono ba de" means "staying where you are"

This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but should cover the most commonly used compound words.

That's it! I hope you found this interesting and useful, and that it makes it all just a bit more meaningful.

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