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Paul_D's picture
The Nature of Fighting article

In his artcile "The Nature of Fighting" Iain wirtes

"Many of the strikes that are now punches were originally palm-heels etc. but were modified as the result of Master Itsou's changes (making the kata more suitable for children)."

Could anyone expand on this please, as I'm not sure how the change make things more suitable for children?  If anything I would have thought that it makes them less suitable, as they are more likely to damage themselves punching than using heel palm.


Nimrod Nir
Nimrod Nir's picture

Paul_D wrote:
Could anyone expand on this please, as I'm not sure how the change make things more suitable for children?

To my understanding, the changes mainly refer to the application or bunkai of the kata. e.g. self-defense range strikes and escapes from holds became unrealistic "hammer fist" blocks, "ready postures" and other nonsense, from an unrealistic range. Also, the following finishing moves, which was originally aimed at the head (after it was lowered to chest level by the previous techniques), was interpreted as "punches and elbows to the chest", which obviously isn't the best choice in a self-defense situation.

Additionally, it is possible that some open hand techniques were changed to closed hand punches during this process. My guess is for uniformity reasons more than anything else (you can see many uniformity-based changes in kata). Again, I think the "suitable for children" part refers to the application. e.g. a lunging punch to the chest after a hammer-fist block from another lunging punch to the chest, all from unrealistic range, is much more suitable for children than, let's say, a shoulder lock from close range followed by a palm-heel strike to the bent-down opponent's temple. I believe you can see why the teacher would prefer children practicing the former rather than the latter.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Paul_D wrote:
In his article "The Nature of Fighting" Iain writes:

That’s a very old article. I think it was written the best part of 20 years ago (was eventually included in my first book that was published in 2000) and it’s great people are still reading it :-)

The article is on the nature of real violence and some of the things we need understand about real violance in order to understand the construction of kata.

The bit you are quoting is part of a much larger section on striking the head. For the benefit of context, I’ve included it here:

Most fights are decided by blows to the head

Once a fight has begun, it is most often decided by who lands the first solid blow to the head. The head controls all and hence it is the prime target in order to end the fight as quickly as possible. As a result of this, one would expect the majority of strikes contained within the katas to be directed at the opponent's head - which they are! At first glance it may appear that many punches are aimed at the opponent's chest. This is not the case however, as most of the "middle level" punches are preceded by techniques that will cause an opponent to buckle at the knees or bend at the waist. These techniques will bring the opponent's head down, such that it is in line with the kata practitioner's chest, and hence what appears to be a middle level blow is in fact aimed at the head.

There are two key things to take into account when striking the head;

A - The head is very mobile and hence can be difficult to strike in a live fight.

B - The bones of the skull are far denser than the bones of the hand, and hence punching the skull with a clenched fist may well result in a broken hand.

The katas consistently deal with both of these points such that effective blows to the head can be delivered. At close range, the head is often secured before a blow to the head is attempted. This is achieved either through a lock being applied that will suitably position the opponent, the direct control of the head itself, or the limbs or body being seized such that the opponent's motion is severely limited. It is very rare in kata for a blow to the head to be attempted at close-range without control being gained first. With regards to the point that a blow to the head could result in damaged hands, it must be remembered that;

A - Hand conditioning was regarded as a vital part of the original karate.

B - Many of the strikes that are now punches were originally palm-heels etc. but were modified as the result of Master Itosu's changes (making the kata more suitable for children).

C - If, when defending yourself in a real situation, all you suffer are damaged hands, then you have done very well indeed!

Full article here: https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/nature-fighting

The article is not about the historical development of karate and hence that single line was a fleeting reference to the shift from pragmatic function to 3K. 

It wasn’t just Itosu, but he is the one who spearheaded the notation of karate being used for the physical development of children. Karate was “sanitised” as a result, with many methods being either downplayed, reinterpreted and omitted.

As Nimrod says above, the aim was to take the teeth out of karate so the kids could not use it to hurt one another. That is how suitability is measured.

Paul_D wrote:
Could anyone expand on this please, as I'm not sure how the change makes things more suitable for children?

From certain positions, punching the head with a closed fist is ineffective. More damage could be done by another tool. However, we don’t want children hammer fisting each other on the base of the skull in the playground (or any other such methods), so we make everything a simple punch. Children can then still benefit from the health and discipline benefits of karate, but they don’t learn to kill and main each other. That version of karate is therefore more suitable for children.

Paul_D wrote:
If anything I would have thought that it makes them less suitable, as they are more likely to damage themselves punching than using heel palm.

The goal when teaching karate in schools was not to impart effective in fighting skills. It was for health and character development purposes. They were not interested in how hard the children could hit one another … they were interested in ensuring no one got hurt. It’s therefore deemed better to teach less effective punches. This was 3K “children’s karate” we are talking about. Suitability is therefore not measured by combative efficiency; quite the opposite.

Itosu was clear about this in his ten precepts (a document used to help explain why karate should be taught in schools):

7. You must decide if karate is for your health or it’s practical use (oyo).

He is therefore clear there are now two karates: one for health (children’s karate) and one for function.

The children would become fit and strong with their new version of karate. Their children’s karate could also serve as the foundation for learning the true combative art when the child was older and more mature. More from Itosu around that:

10. In the past, many masters of karate have enjoyed long lives. Karate aids in developing the bones and muscles. It helps the digestion as well as the circulation. If karate should be introduced, beginning in the elementary schools, then we will produce many men each capable of defeating ten assailants.

If the students at teacher training college learn karate in accordance with the above precepts and then, after graduation, disseminate this to elementary schools in all regions, within 10 years karate will spread all over Okinawa and to mainland Japan. Karate will therefore make a great contribution to our military.

I’d draw particular attention to the last sentence of the tenth precept:

If karate should be introduced, beginning in the elementary schools [i.e. to young children], then we will produce many MEN each capable of defeating ten assailants [i.e. combatively capable adults].

The aim was therefore to teach the children an age appropriate “watered down” karate, which would be good for their health, but would nevertheless serve as the foundation of future adult combative study. That’s pretty much the approach I take to my own kid’s class.

I don’t teach them anything that would make then a danger to other children (no strangles, no strikes to vulnerable areas such as the throat, the omission of certain bunkai, etc) and I place a strong emphasis on fun, fitness, personal change, etc. When they are older, what they have learnt will serve as great foundation for the true art. It’s seems to me that was also Itosu’s vision.

Hard to sum all of that up in one line in an article on a differing topic, but I hope this explains was “young Iain” was driving at.

All the best,