“Karate ni Sente Nashi” (no 1st attack in karate) is undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood phrases in our art. Many take it to be a tactical instruction to always concede the initiative to the enemy by doing nothing until an assault is underway. To illustrate both the ridiculousness and immorality of this position, we can consider a teenage girl who has just been threatened with sexual assault. Are we really saying she is being immoral if she strikes before the assault begins in order to escape? I would hope not!
The past masters who wrote about “Karate ni Sente Nashi” were very clear it is a moral instruction; not a tactical one! The karateka should never be the cause of the violence, but when we can’t avoid the unprovoked violence of others, despite our best efforts, then striking first is something they recommended:
“When faced with someone who disrupts the peace or who will do one harm, one is as a warrior in battle, and so it only stands to reason that one should seize the initiative and pre-empt the enemy’s use of violence. Such action in no way goes against the precept of ‘no first attack’ …the expression ‘karate ni sente nashi’ [no first attack in karate] should be properly understood to mean that the karateka must never take a hostile attitude, or be the cause of a violent incident; he or she should always have the virtues of calmness, prudence and humility in dealing with others.” – Kenwa Mabuni
“There is a saying ‘no first attack in karate’ …To be sure, it is not the budo spirit to train for the purpose of striking others without good reason. I assume that you already understand that in karate one's primary goal must be the training of mind and body… But when a situation can't be avoided and the enemy is intent on doing you serious harm, you must fight ferociously. When one does fight, taking control of the enemy is vital, and one must take that control with the very first move. Therefore, in a fight one must attack first. It is very important to remember this.” – Choki Motobu
We can clearly see that both Motobu and Mabuni saw pre-emption as being very important and that it in no way violated “Karate ni Sente Nashi”.
Pre-emption is one of the few things that works consistently and that is why it should be the go to method when we have an honestly held belief that the violence of others is unavoidable unless we tactically intervene. It provides the most effective way out of a situation with the least amount of violence.
During the dialogue stages we should let the enemy believe they are in full control and that we have no intention of striking, we should then strike them and in the moment of surprise and confusion seek to escape. This is the exact tactic endorsed by Gichin Funakoshi in his book “Karate-Do Kyohan”:
"When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defence techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one's whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter and help."
The exact same tactic is also endorsed by the Bubishi:
“It is often essential to deceive the enemy in order to make an opening. When violence can’t be avoided, be prepared to feign incapacity, weakness or cowardice and when they let down their guard, strike immediately.”
While the law relating to self-defence varies around the globe, here in the UK using pre-emption when you have an honestly held belief that an assault is imminent is supported in law. This is true even if it is mistaken or unreasonable belief; providing the belief is not “attributable to intoxication that was voluntarily induced” (Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 – Section 76).
“A man about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot; circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike.” – Beckford v R  AC 130
“A man who is attacked or believes that he is about to be attacked may use such force as is both necessary and reasonable in order to defend himself. If that is what he does then he acts lawfully.” – (R v Balogun  1 Archbold News 3)
“There is no rule in law to say that a person must wait to be struck first before they may defend themselves, (see R v Deana, 2 Cr App R 75).” – Crown Prosecution Service Website
Pre-emptive striking is highly effective, moral and legal. It was also a method endorsed by the past masters and it in no way violates the concept of “Karate ni Sente Nashi”. It should therefore be a part of the training of all karateka.
All the best,
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