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Michael Rust
Michael Rust's picture
There is no First Attack in Karate

The concept of Sen Sen No Sen to me is really a premptive strike in a reality based situation. To me this proves once again that the the saying there in no first attack in karate is false because we don't wait to be attacked if we sense it or see it. So where does it come from ? And Why ? Who put that concept out there and what did they mean by it ? I think we all know as karateka that we just don't go out and start fights but, at the same time we are not going to wait to be attacked. So the concept that there is no first attack in karate has always confused me.  Thoughts ?

DaveB's picture

I was given to understand that Sen Sen no Sen and other similarly labelled timings come (as a package) from kendo. Thus they neither prove nor disprove anything about Karate's originating culture. 

That Funakoshi described using a preemptive strike as one of the best ways to defend one's self would suggest more strongly that "no first attack" is not referring to giving up initiative. However Funakoshi was not a Master by Okinawan standards and so may have gotten this and other things wrong. 

The simplest explanation is that he meant you don't start fights as a karateka. That would fit with the general ethos of humility respect courtesy etc that was pushed by Japanese karate. 


Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Michael,

its in those situations were you know its going to kick of, like a ticking bomb you know its coming. the guys in your face and no matter what you are saying to prevent the situation its just not working and at any point he will attack you.

Gichin Funakoshi's Karate Do Kyohan (page 234) secret principles:

When there are on avenues for escape or one is caught even before any attempt to esacpe can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defence may be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become carless. At that time attack him, concentrating ones whole strengh in one blow to a vital point, and in the moment of surprise, escape and seek shelter or help. It is most important to be on guard without becoming excited and to act with presence of mind throughout such a situation from the beginning and even once the situation is in hand.

When delivering the one blow against the attacker, the importance of using one's whole strengh and being especially accurate cannot be overemphasized. In the event that this one blow is ineffective, the attacker will become more violent, a point not to be forgotten. The importance of using's one's whole strengh and putting one's heart and soul in this one attempt has been stressed, but it is also importnat to do so only after reaching a rational conclusion that there is no other way out.

The Masters of old knew what situations one may find themselves in as no doubt in their lifetime they may have indeed been in as such.

Hope this is of some help.

Kind regards,


JWT's picture

Hi Michael

I always like to see the precept you mention in the context of the one below:

When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you. It is your behaviour that invites trouble from them.

A pre-emptive strike is not a first attack.  A preemptive strike is a reaction.  It is a reaction to verbal or body language cues that a situation is unresolveable by non physical means and that (if escape without fighting is not possible due to the space or company) you are either going to have to hit first or have to respond to someone else hitting first.  If Karate is viewed as a self defence method then even when it is active it is passive, it is a response to the other person - even when we hit first.  Unless you are talking about a duel, who decided the location of the fight, who decided the time of the fight, who decided the intensity of the fight, and who ended the fight - the answer is 'the other guy' , by picking the fight, by presenting the threat level, and by going down.

If Karate is viewed as a self protection method then it is active, for we adjust our behaviour to reduce as much as possible the chances of other people approaching us in such a way that we might be placed in a situation where fighting is inevitable and we have to strike first.

When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you. It is your behaviour that invites trouble from them.

John Titchen

Ben Ryder
Ben Ryder's picture

"There is no first attack in karate" is an oversimplification of a term which has been perpetuatd by its inclusion in triva based martial arts knowledge checks...it means karate-ka shouldnt be the aggressors...we shouldnt'y start fight but we shoud have no problem finishing them.

Pre-emption is the result of perceiving an imminent threat - the aggressor is the other guy - and taking the initiative.

The tactical strategies of sen no sen, sen sen non sen, go no sen, sen and sasoi no sen that you make reference to are applicable to any form of conflict; the degree of thought tht goes into them before a fight is variable though, but each conflct can also be reviewed under the same terms.

Please find below an extract from a grading paper I wrote on the terms (which touches on your karate ni senti nashi issue):

To illustrate this partnership of old and new working in unison I would like to use the heiho - tactical strategies / combative initiatives of:

  • Sen
  • Go no sen
  • Sen no sen
  • Sasoi no sen
  • Sensen no sen

The common element to these phrases is sen or no sen which is translated as initiative or initiative to attack and so alone could be viewed as ‘taking the initiative to attack’, the opposite of which is go no sen which is reacting to an attack, a defensive act in its purest form. Sen no sen is slightly less reactive and suggests that you are aware of your opponents attacking intention and you time your technique to the starting phase of the attack. Sensen no sen is again less reactive and implies that you initiate a movement to draw an attack in a certain way but utilise this to deploy a prepared technique. Sasoi no sen is quite similar to this in that you are trying to entice your opponent into a certain response (physical or shift in attitude) but then change to create an element of surprise upon which you can capitalise (Quast, 2006). 

The strategies cover the range of options between  pre-emption and reaction. The tactic is dictated by the circumstances rather than a clear cognitive intent to use one; the judgement is spontaneous.

The whole concept of pre-emptive force is confused inkkarate by a misunderstanding of a popular phrase of Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957): karate ni senti nashi – there is no first attack in karate. This suggests to people that karate is a purely defensive art, just as aikido professes to be, but this is not true. This a quote post-WWII when the political situation required it, prior to the war however Funakoshi made some quite disturbing polemic comments about the use of karate in preparing civilians for war. Karate  has always been a form of self-protection and a method of restraint for lawful purposes and as such must have been formulated to deal with the types and motives for violence that we see today: jealous rage, robbery and drunken attacks, and must be for the protection of oneself or others. The same could be used to decide to engage in a fight, though the philosophical influences upon the art should all but prevent such an occurrence. Karate ni sente nashi is a metaphor to show that a karate-ka strives to prevent being drawn into violence and never initiates it, but when this stance is pushed, and force is the only option it can be used, and should be used responsibly.

Removing this myth is key. Most legislation around the use force (it certainly does in the UK) permits the use of force which is ‘reasonable in the circumstances’ pre-emptively and reactively. When teaching students self-protection we must teach them the techniques, but also the consequences of their application (to find proportionality) and develop training methods to recreate the circumstances.

Sasoi no sen is another interesting and extremely effective strategy and has best been described in a contemporary setting as ‘Deceive, Distract, Destroy’ (Thompson, 2004). Drawing an assailant into a false sense of security, diverting their attention and then exploiting that lapse in judgement to attack starts to infringe on some of the core ethical values of budo, but as the context is self-protection and assuming that every effort has been taken to avoid conflict up to that point then such tactics are valid and justifiable to others and your own conscience.

The strategies reflect the circumstance we may face:

  • Sen– actively deciding to impose yourself on another in order to defend people unable to do so
  • Go no sen– being spontaneously attacked, perhaps being hit and responding to the second wave of assault.
  • Sen no sen– a ‘brewing’ incident happen where the attacker is being aggressive and the body language is escalating to the point where an attack is imminent, the initiative is taken and pre-emptive action used.
  • Sensen no sen– in a brewing incident you feint a movement to push the element of surprise onto the assailant, prepared for a habitual act of violence you are able to take the upper hand.
  • Sasoi no sen – perhaps when threatened and asked for your wallet, you decide to display an appearance of intimidation but when the ma-ai  is closed, seize the opportunity by verbally distracting them, spitting in the attackers eyes, striking and running away.

The strategies once brushed are as relevant today as they ever have been and in Koryu Uchinadi we cover them all. As long as people have the same bodies and the same emotional reasons for engaging in violence, then habitual unarmed violence will remain the same; the legal issues faced in this area are directly reflected in the Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist influences on the philosophy of the art – they provide a moral framework that matches the legal framework.


Ben Ryder Koryu Uchinadi Shidoin Leeds, UK www.irkrs-uk.com http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cF7lanAUWzA  

shoshinkanuk's picture


Thanks for this it's a very interesting article/post.

It's consistent with our Ryu as I understand it and makes alot of good common sense.

Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture

With respect to many learned responses to this thread, I can see it working perfectly 'within' the confinds of the dojo but what about the uncontrolled enviroment of the street?

For me its the same as step forward and punch, leaving your hand there for around a minute whilst your partner does his many strikes whilst your other hand remains at your hip with the inability to defend your partner's attacks. Or indeed the Dojo knife attacks and defences from a 'single' lunge.

Ben Ryder
Ben Ryder's picture

In regards to the questioning of applying the pre-emptive strike to a real situation, your question is equally applicabale to any and every martial concept, and I guess ultimatley the true test is in the ability and success of the person applying it in the given situation.

What I can say, as someone who has and still has to engage in confrontation on a very regular basis (last night was the last time), is that the pre-emption is not always necessarily a strike but it is always taking the initiative. This is key as it get us out of the defensive mindset and helps us to take some control of the situation.

The actual application of the pre-emption is nothing like 'stepping forward and leaving you hand there for around a minute', firstly because if you hit them well they will drop, and secondly if you dont thit them well you'll be fighitng them. Pre-emption is always the start but rarely the end.

Paul_D's picture

The saying is not false as such, it is our interpretation that is false.  No First attack is too literal a translation of the words and does not take into account the context and meaning.  I am told by people with a much better understanding of Japanese language than myself is that that what Funakshoi  said was "There is no lead in Karate".  The meaning of which is true Karate-ka do not go starting fights in order to test their skills. If you trawl language forums you will see that even when westerners  have lived in Japan for many many years they still do not 100% fully grasp the language, so the misinterpretation of Funakoshi’s meaning is understandable.