Below is an article written by fellow Budoka and researcher Mark Tankosich. Mark lives in Japan where he works at writes out of a university in Southern Japan. He holds a 6th dan, Renshi in Jodo. His home page is: http://www.marktankosich.com/
Please visit Mark's page as he has many excellent, well researched papers on Japan, Okinawa and Budo culture.
Karate Ni Sente Nashi:
What the Masters Had to SayIntroductionPerhaps no Japanese phrase is more familiar to karate practitioners around the world than “karate ni sente nashi.” Typically translated as, “There is no first attack in karate,” this maxim has become known primarily through the teachings of Gichin Funakoshi. The founder of Shotokan and, according to many, the “father of modern karate-do,” Funakoshi made the principle the second of his Niju Kun (“Twenty Precepts”), following only the directive to not forget that “karate begins and ends with courtesy” (Funakoshi, “Karate-do nijukajo”).
Clearly, for Funakoshi, the maxim karate ni sente nashi was of great importance. In addition to including it as one of his “Twenty Precepts,” he stated in a 1935 magazine article that he “view[s] it as [expressing] the essence of karate-do” (Funakoshi, “Karate no hanashi” 65). Nor is he alone in this view: Shoshin Nagamine, respected founder of the Matsubayashi school of Shorin-ryu karate, wrote that, “This phrase [. . .] embodies the essence of Okinawan karate” (Nagamine 13). Similarly, Masatoshi Nakayama, longtime head of the Japan Karate Association, stated that, “[. . .] it is not an exaggeration to say that it is these words that succinctly and fully express the spirit of karate-do” (Nakayama 80).
With such esteemed masters as these expressing such strong sentiments regarding the significance of the sente nashiprinciple, one can only assume that the principle represents a way of thinking that is — or at least should be — profoundly important for those who consider themselves to be serious practitioners of the art of karate-do. Specifying just exactly what that way of thinking is, in all of its subtleties, would perhaps be a difficult task, but obviously, at its most basic level, the maxim at least clearly proscribes the use of any “first strikes” on the part of karate-ka. Or does it?
Differing OpinionsCertainly many of today’s karate practitioners would argue that striking first is a violation of karate ni sente nashi. Iain Abernethy notes, for example, that when he published an article in some British magazines advocating the use of pre-emptive striking in certain situations:
[. . .] I received a markedly increased level of correspondence. Some were very supportive of [my position] [. . .]. Of those who contacted me in the positive, many stated that their immediate peer group were wholly opposed to the idea [. . .].
The ones who responded in the negative were often VERY strong in their opposition. Their objections were essentially based on moral grounds, but a number cited “karate ni sente nashi” as if I was encouraging the breaking of an 11th commandment! (Abernethy, “Striking First?!” Emphasis in final sentence added.)
Similarly, in his book Steady Training, Antonio Bustillo notes:
I’ve heard many instructors quote the [sente nashi] slogan stating it means you must first wait for an opponent to attack and strike out before you retaliate. As verification to their testimony they use the katas as examples. “Every kata starts with a block. [. . .]” (Bustillo 247)
Yet, there are also those karate-ka who disagree with this position, who believe that the sente nashi principle does not necessarily rule out all first strikes. These practitioners typically argue that a “first attack” can also consist of something other than a physical blow and that once an opponent has engaged in such an attack the karate-ka is free to “defend” himself by striking first. Abernathy, for instance, says:
I believe that ‘karate-do ni sente nashi’ and the pre-emptive strike are in no way mutually exclusive and can exist side by side. To my mind, once an assailant has decided to attack us, the attack has begun. We are then well within our rights to use whatever methods are appropriate to ensure our safety. [. . .] If an individual is behaving in an aggressive way whilst attempting to invade our personal space then there is a strong possibility that their verbal aggression is about to escalate to the physical. This verbal assault is an attack in itself and waiting until the attack becomes physical is foolhardy in the extreme. (Abernethy, Bunkai-Jutsu 122)
Similarly, an anonymous author, after describing a hypothetical situation in which a female karate-ka dispatches three men who accosted her on the street late at night, writes:
Only when we factor in the intent of your opponents do we get a better picture of “karate ni sente nashi.” [. . .] They surrounded you at midnight. They closed mae (sic) [i.e., engagement distance]. They assumed kamae [i.e., fighting postures] even if only American streetgang type nonchalant kamae. [. . .] Their intents were probably violent for such actions as the above can hardly be interpreted as altruistic.
If you felt your life was in danger by their intent your first attack is defense. The war broke out when they stepped across the line of intent and into your personal protected space. [. . .]
When you feel the breach in peace it is time to strike. [. . .] The war has begun. The person who throws the first strike is immaterial (sic). The war began with mobilization, entrapment and perceived intent. [. . .] You would be foolish to delay until after the first physical strike is thrown at you [. . .]. [. . .]
The well-trained martial artist [. . .] may find certain situations [. . .] as conditions where she justifiably throws the physical first strike without breaching “karate ni sente nashi.” (Karate Ni Sente Nashi)
What the Masters Had to Say
Kohaku Iwai lists four Okinawans — all of them legendary martial artists — as “the warriors who introduced karate-jutsu to the [Japanese] mainland”: Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi and Kenwa Mabuni (Iwai 187-211). What, one wonders, did these men have to say about interpreting the karate ni sente nashi maxim? A future paper will examine Funakoshi’s thoughts; here, let us look at some of the writings of Miyagi, Motobu and Mabuni.
To the best of this author’s knowledge, there were three documents produced by Chojun Miyagi (or at least three have been made public): Goju-ryu kenpo, Ho goju donto and Karate-do gaisetsu (“Outline of Karate-do”) (1). The first two of these, written in 1932 and 1942 respectively, contain no reference to sente nashi. In Karate-do gaisetsu, Miyagi does briefly mention the sente nashi principle, but not in any way that is particularly helpful to our discussion. In the version that appears in Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, we find the following paragraph:
Folklore contends that the teaching methods of long ago focused mainly upon self-defense, with little emphasis placed upon training the mind, or cultivating the precept “karate-do ni sente nashi” (there is no first attack in karate-do). I have observed the neglect of this diligent principle, although, with the passage of time, teaching policies have gradually improved to where that imbalance has, for the most part, been corrected. My conviction is that the fist and Zen are one of the same (sic). Together, this balance cultivates intellect ahead of strength. The transmission of budo’s essential precept must be fostered. (Miyagi, “Karate-do Gaisetsu” 50) (2)
Other than in this passage, Miyagi makes no mention of the sente nashi maxim.
Choki Motobu, in his 1932 publication Watashi no karate-jutsu (“My Karatejutsu”), expresses his thoughts on sente nashiin a way that is directly relevant to the question being asked here. In a one-paragraph section titled Karate ni sente nashi, he writes:
There is an expression, “karate ni sente nashi.” Apparently some people interpret this literally and often profess that “one must not attack first,” but I think that they are seriously mistaken. To be sure, it is certainly not the budo spirit to train for the purpose of striking others without good reason. I assume that you already understand that one’s primary purpose must be the training of mind and body. The meaning of this saying, then, is that one must not harm others for no good reason. But when a situation can’t be helped, in other words, when, even though one tries to avoid trouble, one can’t; when an enemy is serious about doing one harm, one must fiercely stand and fight. When one does fight, taking control of the enemy is crucial, and one must take that control with one’s first move. Thus, in a fight one must attack first. It is very important to remember this. (Motobu 58- 59) (3)
Indeed, on at least one occasion Choki Motobu did demonstrate his willingness to strike first, if a story told to karate researcher Charles Goodin is to be believed. Goodin reports that he heard the story from Motobu’s son, Chosei, who in turn had heard it from Chozo Nakama, a former student of the elder Motobu (4). According to the account provided Goodin, Choki Motobu, in his seventies at the time, was attending a large party when a former student burst in and, waving a knife, challenged Motobu. Goodin reports:
“I can use this,” [the student] declared stabbing the knife into Motobu’s table, “I will never lose the fight.” (sic)
[. . .] “I won’t fight with any weapon,” [Motobu] stated calmly. “I won’t fight with a knife.” Although he tried his best to convince the student not to fight, the student insisted. “Are you really that determined to fight me with a knife?” asked Motobu.
“I am,” proclaimed the student defiantly. “I won’t change my mind!”
“All right then,” said Motobu finally. “I will take you up on your offer, but we should not fight in the house.”
The student grabbed the knife and headed for the door. Motobu followed closely behind. Just before the student reached the door, Motobu kicked him in the back, shattering his backbone. (Goodin 12)
Assuming that the above account is accurate, whether or not the situation in which Motobu found himself can truly be called one in which physical conflict was unavoidable is, perhaps, open to debate. Motobu’s willingness to strike first, however, is clear.
Additional information regarding Motobu’s thoughts on striking first can be found in Motobu Choki sensei: Goroku (“A Collection of Sayings of Sensei Choki Motobu”) (5). There, listed as saying number nine, we find a statement that seemingly contradicts the karate ni sente nashi principle: Karate wa sente de aru (“karate is the first attack”). (Nakata 42). Given the opinion that he expresses in Watashi no karate-jutsu (see above), it seems reasonable to conclude that with these words Motobu meant to stress the importance of striking first when trouble is unavoidable.
Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of the Shito-ryu school of karate, produced a number of publications during his lifetime. Among them, and co-authored with Genwa Nakasone, was the book Kobo kenpo karate-do nyumon, about which noted karate historian Patrick McCarthy has written:
Considered his best work of all [. . .]. [. . .] this [. . .] was considered by one writer to be the real “Master Text” of karate-do. [. . .] Mabuni Kenwa won widespread recognition during that pre-war era with this book and, considering the magnitude of this work, it is surprising to hear that it has never been translated into English. (McCarthy, “Standing” 30)
In this book, in a section of Chapter 10 entitled “Correct and Incorrect Understanding of the Meaning of ‘Karate ni Sente Nashi,’” we find the following extremely relevant comments:
There is a precept “karate ni sente nashi.” Properly understood, this indicates a mental attitude of not being eager or inclined to fight. It is the teaching that just because one has trained in karate does not mean that one can rashly strike or kick others. It seems that there are two types of mistaken interpretations regarding this precept, and [I’d] like to correct them.
The first is a mistaken understanding held by some people who are not karate practitioners. Such people say, “In all fights the opportunity for victory is seized by getting the jump on your enemy; a passive attitude such as sente nashi is inconsistent with Japanese budo.” Such a view forgets the essential purpose of budo: Bu (6) takes as its ideal the stopping of the spear (7), and its aim is the maintenance of peace. Those who make such statements do not understand that the true spirit of Japanese budo means not being bellicose.
When faced with someone who disrupts the peace or who will do one harm, one is as a warrior gone to battle, and so it only stands to reason that one should get the jump on the enemy and preempt his use of violence. Such action in no way goes against the precept of sente nashi.
Second is a mistaken understanding found among some karate practitioners. It is a view that does not see sente nashi as an attitude, but rather as a literal, behavioral rule to be rigidly followed. As noted above, when absolutely necessary, when one is already facing a battle, it is an accepted truth of strategy that one should try to take sensen no sen (8) and forestall the enemy’s actions.
In conclusion, the expression karate ni sente nashi should be properly understood to mean that a person who practices karate must never take a bellicose attitude, looking to cause an incident; he or she should always have the virtues of calmness, prudence and humility in dealing with others. (Mabuni and Nakasone 82-83) (9)
Examining the writing of Chojun Miyagi reveals little regarding his interpretation of the karate ni sente nashi maxim. Our look at the thoughts of two other legendary karate pioneers, though – Choki Motobu and Kenwa Mabuni – clearly shows that they strongly believed that striking first does not necessarily violate the sente nashi principle. Indeed, both men seem to have felt that a first strike is, under certain conditions, the only reasonable course of action for a karateka to take. It is interesting to note that, just as is true today, when Motobu and Mabuni were writing their books (in the 1930s), there were apparently those who viewed sente nashi as being a prohibition on striking first; both masters unambiguously condemn such literal interpretations.
Given his (assuming here for the purposes of discussion, well-deserved) reputation as somewhat of a ruffian who had more than his share of fights, one might argue, perhaps, that Choki Motobu’s views on the properness of striking first should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. What of Kenwa Mabuni and his views, though? In what light should we see them? According to McCarthy, Mabuni was “a staunch advocate of the moral values established to govern the behavior of karate-do practitioners” (McCarthy, “Standing” 34). If this is true, then one could hardly “explain away” Mabuni’s expressed willingness to strike first as the view of someone not particularly concerned with whether or not karate-ka behaved in a morally-proper manner. Apparently, when Mabuni (with Nakasone) stated that, “[. . .] when one is already facing a battle, it is an accepted truth of strategy that one should try to take sensen no sen and forestall the enemy’s actions,” he did so with complete awareness of the moral issues involved.
AcknowledgmentsThe author would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to his wife (and best friend), Yasuko Okane, and to his colleague and friend, Izumi Tanaka, for their patient Japanese language assistance. He would also like to thank leading karate researcher Joe Swift for his helpful email correspondence, and martial arts author Iain Abernethy for his kind help. Any and all errors are, of course, solely the fault of the author.
Translated by Aodhan and James M. Hatch
Sept. 12, 2020
Below is a translation of a newspaper article from the Kumamoto newspaper Kumamoto Daily News, first published in September 1973. In it, Chitose Sr talks about his life in karate and highlights some key events. The heavy lifting of the translation was done by my son Aodhan Hatch, with minor tweaks made by myself. Any mistakes will be a result of these tweaks and as such are my fault.
While every attempt has been made to translate the document the nature of working between Japanese, a high context language, and English often makes the intended subtly missing. In such places as where we have expanded beyond the written text, I have added italics.
A special thanks to my Norweigan colleague Dr Rune Ingebrigtsen for passing a copy of the original of this article to me.
68 years living with karate: Kumamoto City’s Chitose-san
The soft sounds of a jabisen (Okinawan musical instrument) float across the morning air in Shimizu-Cho, in Kumamoto city. The musician, still alert and healthy is a 68-year-old man who has lived with karate as a core of his life for 68 years. This is Chitose-san, a worldwide know exponent on the traditional Okinawan practice of karate. As he begins to speak his deep-seated passion for karate is evident.
A major turning point in Chitose's karate life took place shortly after the end of the war in downtown Kumamoto. In a local side street off the main thoroughfare, a large brawl broke out, involving approximately 30 people between returned Japanese troops and locally stationed American troops. The fight was causing a large commotion and there was a danger to bystanders. Annoyed with this disturbance Chitose entered the fray alone. Using only his fist and legs he sent the ruffians flying and peace returned. Having quelled the situation, he left silently.
The next day Chitose received a call to attend the local police station and they wanted to have a ‘chat’. Shocked and somewhat worried he was fearful he was going to be arrested for quelling the disturbance, despite it having been a good act for the public. Upon arrival at the station he was ushered into the Head of Police’s office where, to his utter surprise, he was presented with a letter of thanks form the police for his role in resolving the previous day’s altercation. Furthermore, the Head of the USA’s MPs came by the Chitose household and asked Chitose is he would be willing to teach all the MPs stationed locally, approximately 45 people. He agreed and life was to change dramatically.
Chitose was born in Kumioji, on the outskirts of Naha city, Okinawa. When he was 20 years old he joined the imperial guard (Konoe Shidan) but was ‘kicked out’ after 18 months as he had contracted typhoid. He returned to Okinawa where he worked for 18 months as a substitute teacher. However, he wanted to follow the path of medicine so he returned to Tokyo where he worked in a Tokyo hospital as a gynaecology doctor for about 20 years.
However, due to the war, Chitose decided to leave Tokyo and headed to Kumamoto where he worked as an assistant teacher in a kindergarten. The year following his move to Kumamoto, the war ended (i.e. 1945). He settled down near his wife’s (Makie-san) family home in Kikuchi city. Nevertheless, with the urging on a friend he decided to open the Chitose Hykaten, a department store. Sadly, the business was poor and he was forced to close the store after five years of operation. At this time he was also running a small dojo for locals.
Chitose’s karate history goes a long way back. He started karate while at elementary school (7 years old). He learned Shorin Ryu (i.e. Shuri no Te) and also the Shoreiryu (i.e. Naha no Te). While operating his dojo in Kikuchi city he combined both these styles into a new style called Chito Ryu. This style was based on Chitose’s long years of research into the physiology and anatomy of humans.
The kanji uses for wa (唐) is the same used for the traditional kanji of ‘kara’ used originally in Okinawa. Chitose expressly selected this kanji as he wanted to ensure the tradition of karate was passed on.
In 1953 he moved his dojo to Kumamoto city, Shimizu-Cho (area). From 1964 until the present (i.e. 1973) Shimizu-Cho in Kumamoto-city has served as the headquarters of the Chito Kai Association. Chitose is a 10th-degree blackbelt, the Saiko Shihan (leading instructor) and Soke (i.e. founder) of Chito Ryu. The Hombu dojo currently has approximately 150 members, aged between 8-60 training regularly. From this coming Spring (1974) Chitose’s only son, Yasuhiro (4th dan in karate) will graduate from Tokai Dai (Tokai University) and begin his preparation to inherit the Chito Ryu system. The young Chitose will continue to learn from his father and to teach the depths of Chito Ryu.
Chito Ryu is spreading rapidly across the globe with approximately 200,000 practitioners n japan, 15,000 in Canada and 4,000 in the USA. Currently, there are about 150 people in Austalia, 100 in France practising Chito Ryu and it is expected to see a branch open in Germany soon. In Canada Masami Tsuroka ( a second-generation Japanese) oversees the organisation. In the USA, a former MP and one of Chitose’s original groups of MP’s William Dometrich works to spread Chito Ryu. Chitose has now visited both Canada and the USA a number of times and is always lionized by the local media as the ‘Chitose, the Karate-Japan man’.
Last month he visited the USA with his favourite student Kugizaki Eido (Shihan Renshi 6th dan). He also took this opportunity to visit Canada during this trip. In all places, he is treated well and received a hearty welcome from the governor or mayor. visit Chitose and Kugizaki witnessed the Chito Ryu karate tournament. He shares that while on his recent trip to Canada he took an opportunity to have a medical check-up at a location where a Chito Ryu practitioner works. The result showed he had the body of a 35-year-old “They said that I will be guaranteed another 25 years of life, which means I will live to be 100 years old’ Chitose laughs.
The mentality of Chito Kai is summed up in the characters for wa (harmony) and nin (perseverance). The aim if for peace with others and also to have pateince in your life. The Chito Ryu logo personifies this central tenet. On the symbol two empty hands (written as kara and te) with the circle in the middle symbolising the whole world. The message is to unite the whole world with peace and perseverance. Chito-Ryu produces a monthly newsletter with the goal of deepening bonds between practitioners across the globe.
Returning to Japan a 10th Dan from Okinawa was the happiest day of my life
The devastation of Okinawa at the end of the pacific war deeply torubled Chitose. As a means of helping his homeland he set up a charity group in Kumamoto city which sent funds and relief supplies to Kumamoto. For Chitose, Okinawa remains his homeland and posses many fond memories. Thus, he continues to play his jabisen as the memory of his hometown floats before him and remains forever in his mind’s eye.
NB: Below is a copy of the original article.
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan