Gichin Funakoshi‘s 14th precept of karate (一、戦は虚実の操縦如何に在り Hitotsu, tatakai wa kyojitsu no sōjū ikan ni ari) has a number of different translations including:

  • The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength)
  • The outcome of a fight depends on one’s control
  • War lies in how to maneuver between truth and fiction
  • The battle unfolds according to how you move guarded and unguarded.

Let’s explore the meaning of this precept through its original Japanese text.

First of all, 戦 (tatakai) has a number of possible meanings including war, battle, campaign, fight, match, and competition. Fight, war, battle or competition does not limit to the martial art context but, given his classical Chinese education background, Funakoshi likely intended it to include all the fights, battles or conflicts that we face in our daily life.

The second key word, 操縦 (soju), also has a number of possible meanings including control, maneuver, handle and manage.

The third key word of this precept, 虚実 (kyojitsu) can have multiple meanings as well.

The word 虚 (kyo) itself has many meanings including falsehood, emptiness, hollowness, fiction, deception, and weakness.

The word 実 (jitsu) also has many meanings including truth, reality, substance, honesty, integrity, and sincerity.

So, 虚実 (kyojitsu) can mean ‘truth and falsehood’, ‘strength and weakness’, ‘substance and hollowness’, ‘reality and fiction’, ‘integrity and dishonesty’, ‘fullness and emptiness’, or ‘honesty and deception’.

Putting all of the above together, Gichin Funakoshi’s 14th precept means the outcome of a conflict, a battle, a fight, or a competition depends on how one navigates and manages the opposing forces, whether they are ‘truth and falsehood’, ‘strength and weakness’, ‘reality and fiction’, ‘honesty and deception’, or ‘substance and hollowness’.

This concept is rooted in a broader philosophical concept known as the “unity of opposites.”

At its core, the unity of opposites suggests that opposing forces or ideas are not separate and isolated, but rather interconnected and interdependent. In other words, these opposites are not entirely contradictory but rather complement and define each other. The concept can be traced back to ancient philosophies and has been explored in various cultures and traditions.

In every person and every object, there exists opposing characteristics, elements and forces and the key to progressing and resolving conflicts is to identify and work with these opposite sides.

In the context of conflicts, battles, fights, or competitions, the concept suggests that success is achieved not by favoring one side of the opposition over the other, but by recognizing the interplay between them and finding a balance or harmony. For example:

  1. Strength and Weakness. Success may involve capitalizing on your strengths while acknowledging and addressing your weaknesses. To increase your chance of success, you’ll need to further develop your strengths and find ways to overcome your weaknesses or turn your weaknesses into opportunities. Moreover, you also need to learn to not underestimate your opponents based solely on their weaknesses and learn to use their own strength against themselves
  2. Truth and Falsehood. It is important to understand the importance of deception and misdirection during combat as well as in resolving conflicts in your daily life. Feints, fakes, and disguising true intentions can confuse opponents and create openings for attack. Balancing honesty in technique with strategic deceit can lead to success. Furthermore, instead of solely relying on truth or falsehood, success could also come from understanding the shades of gray, acknowledging partial truths, and using discernment to navigate complex situations
  3. Reality and Fiction. Navigating the boundary between reality and fiction can be important in creative endeavors, decision-making, and even interpersonal relationships. Recognizing when fiction can illuminate reality or when a touch of reality can enhance fiction is crucial. For example, in karate, you often engage in drills that might appear unrealistic or exaggerated. However, they serve as tools to develop skills, reflexes, and muscle memory. While these training methods may not replicate real combat precisely, they contribute to your ability to respond effectively in real-world situations
  4. Honesty and Deception. The balance between honesty and deception is delicate. In martial arts, skilled fighters learn how to disguise their true intentions and create openings by masking their intentions. As Sun Tzu says “appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” This tactic can help you significantly improve your chance of success and victory in the battlefield
  5. Substance and Hollowness. It’s essential to recognize genuine substance from mere superficiality. Achieving success involves distinguishing between meaningful actions and empty gestures. In martial arts, form should follow function. Techniques that lack proper form, focus, and martial intent are considered hollow. Martial art mastery only comes from training with substance – perfecting fundamental techniques with a deep understanding of proper body mechanics is required to ensure they are genuinely effective in combat scenarios.

The unity of the opposites encourages you to see the world in a more nuanced and interconnected way. It suggests that finding harmony between seemingly contradictory forces leads to better outcomes than blindly favoring one side.

All Posts in the Series:

Precept 1: Do Not Forget that Karate-do Begins and Ends with Rei

Precept 2: There Is No First Strike in Karate

Precept 3: Karate Stands on the Side of Justice

Precept 4: First Know Yourself Then Know Others

Precept 5: Mentality Over Technique

Precept 6: The Mind Must Be Set Free

Precept 7: Calamity Springs from Carelessness

Precept 8: Karate Goes Beyond the Dojo

Precept 9: Karate Is a Lifelong Pursuit

Precept 10: Apply the Way of Karate to All Things, Therein Lies Its Beauty

Precept 11: Karate Is Like Boiling Water: Without Heat, It Returns to Its Tepid State

Precept 12: Do Not Think of Winning, Think, Rather, of Not Losing

Precept 13: Make Adjustments According to Your Opponent

Precept 14: The Outcome of a Battle Depends on How One Controls Truth and Fiction

Precept 15: Think of the Opponent’s Hands and Feet as Swords

Precept 16: When You Step Beyond Your Own Gate, You Face a Million Enemies

Precept 17: Kamae Is For Beginners; Later, One Stands In Shizentai

Precept 18 – Perform Kata Exactly; Actual Combat Is Another Matter

Precept 19: Do Not Forget the Employment or Withdrawal of Power, the Extension or Contraction of the Body, the Swift or Leisurely Application of Technique

Precept 20: Be Constantly Mindful, Diligent, and Resourceful in Your Pursuit of the Way


Gichin Funakoshi (1938) The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate

Contradiction and Harmony