“Karate ni sente nashi” or “There is no first strike in karate” is the second of the 20 precepts that Gichin Funakoshi wrote to guide his students in the development of both spiritual and technical aspects of their karate.
What does “karate ni sente nashi” mean?
“Karate ni sente nashi” (空手に先手なし) is often translated as “there is no first strike in karate”.
This precept is such important that after Gichin Funakoshi passed away, a monument was erected in his memory in Okinawa, his birthplace, and “karate ni sente nashi” was engraved on this monument.
Because there is no record of Gichin Funakoshi explaining the meaning of the 20 precepts, there is some debate about what this phrase actually means.
However, Genwa Nakasone later wrote commentaries on the 20 precepts which had been read and approved by Gichin Funakoshi.
For those of you who have never heard of Genwa Nakasone before, he was a school teacher, politician, and also editor and publisher of many karate and martial arts books including the well-known “Karate-do Taikan” (out of print) and “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate“.
Genwa Nakasone was influential in the introduction of Okinawan traditional karate to mainland Japan.
In the picture below, Genwa Nakasone (second from right) was present amongst Hironori Otsuka, Gichin Funakoshi, Motobu Chōki, Kenwa Mabuni, Takeshi Shimoda, and Shinken Taira at a meeting in 1935 discussing changing the name of the Okinawan te art from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand”.
Below are some key points of Genwa Nakasone’s comments on this second precept.
“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).
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.Genwa Nakasone
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It is clear from above that “there is no first strike in karate” means that one should not use their karate skills as the first recourse to sort out problems or settle conflicts and should only use karate or physical forces when it is absolutely necessary.
A karateka should never be the aggressor or the one who incites violence. And even when a karateka is threatened with the prospect of potential violence, he or she should try all peaceful means possible to achieve a desirable outcome without fighting.
In his book “Karate-Do Kyohan“, Gichin Funakoshi even considers running away from the attacker to be the best form of self-defense.
If, even while taking precautionary measures, one should be attacked by hoodlums in a stroke of ill luck, then it is better to run away. Running away as far as possible and seeking shelter in someone’s home or shouting for help would be the best forms of self-defense.Gichin Funakoshi
Furthermore, when one is ultimately forced to use their fighting skills to defend themselves, they should only use forces proportionally to the extent that is necessary. Someone punching you in the face does not give you the right to gouge their eyes out and claim that it is self-defense.
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 firsts 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.Genwa Nakasone
And lastly, when one is nevertheless forced to enter a fight, taking the initiative to strike the opponent first in order to achieve victory is even encouraged.
In a worst-case scenario, where combat is unavoidable, it is proper to take the initiative, attacking time and again until victory is achieved.Genwa Nakasone
Clearly, karate ni sente nashi is never about one should not strike first.
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Other interpretations of karate ni sente nashi
Some people have interpreted this second precept as “in a fight, a karateka should not attack first” and cite the fact that every Shotokan kata begins with a block (uke) technique to justify this explanation.
This is a misunderstanding.
As can be seen above, with this second precept, Gichin Funakoshi clearly wants his students to refrain from the reckless use of force (or karate knowledge) to resolve conflicts, it is not about who should launch the first strike in a fight.
Force is used as a last resort where humanity and justice cannot prevail, but if the fist is used freely without consideration, then the user will lose the respect of others and be shabbily treated, while being censured for barbaric action.Gichin Funakoshi
Furthermore, when a physical fight is unavoidable, it would be foolish to not strike first when there is an opportunity to do so in order to secure victory and end a fight quickly.
For example, if you are confronted by a group of thugs who demand your phone, wallet and car key and you are not sure if that is not all they want from you, it would be silly to wait for them to hit you first to defend yourself.
The fight has already started from the moment they “attacked” you via threatening physical and verbal expressions and you should definitely strike first if you can to protect yourself.
For example, once they have entered your personal space, taking down the leader with a fast and powerful strike to the vital points can help you end the fight quickly. This is what Gichin Funakoshi advises 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-defense 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 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 strength 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 one’s whole strength and putting one’s heart and soul in this one attempt has been stressed, but it is also important to do so only after reaching a rational conclusion that there is no other way out.Gichin Funakoshi
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Typically, four types of timing are taught in karate:
- Go no Sen means you deliver a counter-attack after you successfully block an attack
- Tai no Sen means you deliver a counter-attack at the same time as the attack
- Sen no Sen means you predict the attacker’s imminent attacks and strike back before their attack reaches you
- Sen Sen no Sen means you attack first when knowing the opponent’s intention to attack you.
Depending on the specific situation of the fight, all of the above timing strategies can be used to protect yourself and achieve victory including launching pre-emptive strikes (sen sen no sen).
Lastly, a block can be used as an attack (e.g. a soto uke can be used to break someone’s arm aiming at the elbow) and an attack can also be used to stop an attack (e.g., a mae geri can be used to stop a punch).
Therefore, the fact that all Shotokan kata starts with a uke technique doesn’t imply that you should never strike first.
In summary, “there is no first strike in karate” means that karate should not be the first means one uses to resolve conflict. It is the absolute opposite of “strike first and ask questions later”.
However, it does not mean that one should not attack first in a fight. Contrarily, if a fight is unavoidable, if possible, one should take the initiative to attack first to achieve victory.
Related post: Shotokan’s Complete System of Kumite Practice
Gichin Funakoshi (1938). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate
“Karate ni sente nashi” monument
Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text
Sen no sen (Tai no sen) and Sen sen no sen
The Three States of Sen – Sen sen no sen, Sen no sen, Go no sen
Karate as a political issue at the beginning of the Showa Period. Nakasone Genwa: historian, editor and ideologist
Genwa Nakasone – Teacher, Journalist, Politician
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