“Karate ni sente nashi“, one of the 20 precepts of karate written by Gichin Funakoshi, is often translated literally as “there is no first attack in karate” and many people interpret it as a karateka should never launch the first attack.
In my opinion, this is definitely not what “karate ni sente nashi” means.
Based on my reading of what Gichin Funakoshi said in his book “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate“, the intended meaning of “karate ni sente nashi” is that: attacking should not be the first course of action in karate.
In this article, I would argue that it is perfectly okay to launch the first attack in a fight if it is necessary to defend yourself or to fight for a cause you believe in.
As this quote is often attributed to Gichin Funakoshi, we will have a close look at what Gichin Funakoshi said in his book and other masters’ views on this subject.
Karate ni sente nashi according to Gichin Funakoshi
In his book when talking about the second principle “karate ni sente nashi“, Gichin Funakoshi began by quoting a basic teaching of Japanese bushido that “a sword must never be recklessly drawn“.
“A sword must never be recklessly drawn” was the most important tenet of conduct in the daily life of a samurai. It was essential for the honorable man of the day to bear things to the very limit of his ability before taking action. Only after reaching the point where the situation could no longer be tolerated was the blade drawn from its scabbard. This was a basic teaching of Japanese bushido (the Way of the Warrior).
Gichin Funakoshi then went on to explain how this principle applies to karate.
In karate, the hands and feet can be as deadly as the blade of a sword. Thus, the principle that “there is no first strike in karate” is an extension of the basic samurai principle that one must avoid the reckless use of weapons. It underscores the absolute necessity of patience and forbearance.
It is clear in the above paragraph what “karate ni sente nashi” meant according to Funakoshi.
Because a karateka’s hands and feet can become deadly weapons, they must not be readily “drawn” or resorted to as the first means to resolve a conflict and should be reserved for situations when they become absolutely necessary.
Gichin Funakoshi further quoted master Anko Itosu to emphasize the point that even when one is forced to “draw the sword” or use hands and feet to achieve one’s goal, they should be used proportionately in order to avoid causing injury to others unnecessarily.
… in the event that you are accosted by a thug or challenged by an aggressive troublemaker, you should try to avoid striking a mortal blow. You must hold as an essential principle that avoidance of injury to others with your fists and feet is your first concern…
… this may be likened to the practice of hitting an attacker with the back ridge of a sword rather than with the cutting edge. It is crucial to allow an opponent time to reconsider or regret his actions.
Funakoshi also made it clear that “karate ni sente nashi” does not mean that one should never launch the first attack in a fight. On the other hand, his view was that it is perfectly okay to initiate an attack if the situation warrants it.
… in a worst-case scenario, where combat is unavoidable, it is proper to take the initiative, attacking time and again until victory is achieved.
Some people argue that the principle “there is no first attack in karate” is reflected in the fact that all katas in Shotokan style start with a block.
However, this is not true because a karate technique can be used as both a block and an attack.
For example, an age uke can be used as an attack aiming at someone’s throat or a mae geri can be used as an effective way to stop a direct attack aiming at your center line.
Similarly, a gedan barai can be used as an attack while a tsuki can be used to stop an attack as well.
In summary, the essence of what Funakoshi said in the second principle “karate ni sente nashi” is that in karate, the use of physical force should not be the first course of action. One must resort to all other possible means to achieve a desirable outcome first and physical force should only be used as a last resort.
Karate ni sente nashi according to Chojun Miyagi
There is no record of Chojun Miyagi elaborating on the karate ni sente nashi principle in detail.
However, he once bemoaned the lack of emphasis on the karate ni sente nashi principle in karate training that:
… although maxims such as karate ni sente nashi … existed, in reality this type of spiritual focus was paid little if any attention – the focus was on the physical…
He also said “Do not strike others and do not allow others to strike you. The goal is peace without incident” which I think is consistent with the karate ni sente nashi principle.
One should not learn karate to strike others but when one is under attack or under imminent attack, one can use appropriate means to prevent that from happening. In such situations, pre-emptive strikes are not inconsistent with the karate ni sente nashi principle.
Karate ni sente nashi according to Motobu Choki
Despite the differences between them, Motobu Choki and Gichin Funakoshi are pretty much on the same page with regard to the intended meaning of “karate ni sente nashi“, at least based on their written records.
In his book “My Art and Skill of Karate“, Motobu Choki wrote only a short passage on “karate ni sente nashi” which conveys essentially the same message as that by Gichin Funakoshi: a karateka should avoid using force unnecessarily.
He even went on to say that when a fight is unavoidable, it is essential to strike first to dominate the enemy.
There is the expression called ‘karate ni sente nashi’ … and some people seem to frequently teach it as “you must not attack first” which I think is quite a misunderstanding…
… this expression means that you should not cause harm indiscriminately, and if you are forced to, that is, when it is unavoidable, and the enemy tries to harm you, you must stand up and fight ferociously.
When entering a fight, it is essential to dominate the enemy, and to dominate the enemy, you must move (attack) first. Therefore when entering a fight, you must move (attack) first. This is important to keep in mind.
How Motobu Choki perfectly demonstrated the principle of “karate ni sente nashi“
Motobu Choki was celebrating his seventy-second birthday at a restaurant when a younger and intoxicated man (some source said the man was also armed with a knife) challenged him to a fight in front of everyone.
After trying to dissuade the man unsuccessfully, Motobu Choki accepted the challenge.
As they walked out of the restaurant for the fight, Motobu Choki “without warning kicked him so hard in the hips from behind that he was thrown violently to the floor, where he lay in great pain unable to move“.
Motobu Choki clearly walked his talk in this instance.
He didn’t want to fight for no reason. He didn’t want to risk injury or hurt the young man. He was provoked and he had no choice but to enter a fight with a younger opponent who was armed.
He was older and, in a fight involving a knife, anything could happen. In short, his life and his reputation were at risk and he took the opportunity to attack first and the fight was instantly over.
While some purists may disagree, in my view, in this situation, Motobu Choki did follow the karate ni sente nashi principle to the letter.
Richard Kim’s tale and the meaning of karate ni sente nashi
Richard Kim (1919-2001), a well-respected American martial artist who was a master in several martial arts including Shorin ryu karate, Judo and Okinawan kobudo, told the following tale when he was asked about what karate ni sente nashi meant to him.
The story happened after World War II and during the Allied occupation of Japan.
A Japanese man was beaten up by a few drunken Allied servicemen. He was crying out for help but a crowd of Japanese gathering around to watch what was happening were afraid and did nothing.
Eventually, a karate sensei intervened. He took the injured man away and handed him to some locals and told them to take the man to the hospital.
He then turned to face the drunken men who began to attack him. He endured the attack but did not fight back. As the crowd gathering around them became larger, concerning for their own safety, the men eventually stopped and left.
The karate sensei bowed to the crowd and left as well.
He must have felt that he could be able to withstand the servicemen’s attack and didn’t think that his life was threatened and therefore didn’t need to fight back.
This is also a perfect demonstration of the karate ni sente nashi principle: one must avoid the use of force unless it is absolutely necessary.
Much has been debated about Gichin Funakoshi’s “karate ni sente nashi” principle and what it actually means.
In my opinion, Gichin Funakoshi stated clearly in his book that “karate ni sente nashi” meant, in karate, one should not resort to the use of one’s weapons (hands, feet and other body parts) first to resolve a conflict.
Only after all other means fail that one can resort to the use of physical force. And even in this case, force should be used appropriately to avoid unnecessary harm.
Karate ni sente nashi does not mean that one should never attack first.
When one is forced to fight, taking the initiative to strike first is not prohibited and should even be encouraged if it helps achieve victory.
To be honest, I am not sure where the confusion or controversy comes from because Gichin Funakoshi explained it quite clearly in his book.
- Gichin Funakoshi (1938). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate
- Choki Motobu (1932) My Art and Skill of Karate
- The History of Karate and the Masters Who Made It
- “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” á la Motobu Choki
- Richard Kim
Other posts you might be interested in:
- Karate vs BJJ: Which One Is Better for Self-Defense?
- Karate – Its Ancient Origin and Evolving History
- How to Systematically Improve Your Karate Sparring
- Shotokan Karate Grading Syllabus: Brown Belt (3rd Kyu)
- Choki Motobu’s Wisdom in “My Art and Skill of Karate”
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