The process of learning kumite (sparring or partner work) in Shotokan karate can be a long and arduous path. Usually a practitioner begins by learning the introductory kihon of our style such as punches, blocks and kicks and then basic partner work drills are introduced such as gohon kumite (five-step sparring) and sanbon kumite (three step sparring) at the beginning level and then kihon ippon-kumite (basic one-step sparring) at the intermediate level. By the time the practitioner has reached the brown belt level the partner work drills have progressed to jiyu ippon-kumite (free one-step sparring). So essentially the first two to three years of a karate-ka’s practice are focused on learning set drills that progressively lead the karate-ka to a better understanding of basic technique and how those techniques can be used against an opponent.
Many instructors introduce jiyu kumite (free sparring) in the midst of all of this drilling of basic technique to break up the monotony of set partner work and to try to encourage the practitioner to loosen up and not be so rigid. I think this is a good idea especially at the intermediate levels of 6th – 4th kyu. I believe there is great value in systematically introducing partner work drills through set sequences that build upon one another but it is also important to encourage freedom of movement and creativity through free sparring. With a structured combination of these two methods practitioners can gradually be given the necessary tools at the beginning and intermediate levels to lay the foundations for rapid improvement in their overall kumite skills at the brown belt levels and beyond.
If we look at the systematic training methods that Shotokan offers we can see that gohon kumite and sanbon kumite are essentially partner work drills that focus on repetition of offensive and defensive techniques. Kihon ippon-kumite offers different applications of each basic technique and emphasizes the “one chance” mentality and the importance of effective counter attacks under stress. Jiyu ippon-kumite takes kihon ippon-kumite training to the next level by introducing the concepts of distance, timing, range and the element of surprise.
This article assumes that the reader has already mastered the prerequisites of basic technique along with set partner work drills and is looking to take his or her kumite skills to the next level through a deeper understanding of what Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, Chief Instructor and President of the Shotokan Karate International Federation, refers to as “harmonizing with your opponent.” According to Kanazawa-sensei, if you can harmonize with your opponent you will never lose an encounter, whether physical or verbal. At the highest level this concept essentially means that you will never be drawn into an encounter in the first place because you will be able to read the intentions of your opponent and appropriately diffuse the situation before any hostility and conflict can arise. From the perspective of actual kumite practice, however, there are several key concepts to understand.
Within the overall category of harmonizing with your opponent, which Kanazawa-sensei calls “wa no sen,” there are three sub-categories of defensive strategy. These are called “go no sen” (counter attack), “tai no sen” (same-time attack) and “sen no sen” (pre-emptive strike.)
The first of these strategies, “go no sen” (counter attack) is both the easiest to understand and also the easiest to execute from the practitioner’s point of view. Most beginning kumite drills focus on counter attacks as the main form of defense. This means that as the attacker moves in with their chosen technique the defender blocks and then counters with an appropriate technique. In the simplest form, the attacker steps in with a head punch and the defender blocks the punch with rising block and then counters with a reverse punch. This is the easiest form of defensive strategy as all the defender has to do is to get out of the way of the opponent’s attack by using footwork and an appropriate block and then counter with some kind of strike. At the beginning level there really isn’t much need for anything more advanced than this kind of strategy but when faced with a more skilled opponent the basic strategy falls apart as the counter attack is subsequently blocked and countered again by the initial attacker causing the defender to ultimately lose the initiative. Another problem with this counter attack strategy is that there is no harnessing of the attacker’s power and forward momentum by the defender as the blocking technique is aimed at nullifying the attack and then the counter attack must be delivered with 100% effort and power from the defender to be effective. Essentially a ‘tempo’ has been lost by the defender. This can be likened to a chess player putting his queen into play too early without adequate protection and having to backtrack on the move, thus losing a ‘tempo’.
The second strategy, “tai no sen” (same-time attack) is much more effective but is consequently more difficult to pull off. This strategy is where the defender is able to see the attack coming and counter at the point that the attacker is most committed. For example the attacker comes in with a head punch and the defender, seeing the attack, resists the natural reaction of moving back, and instead moves in to the attack ducking the head out of the way and delivering a solid punch to the ribcage with perfect timing. The resulting effect of this defense is twice that of the counter attack because the defender is meeting the attacker in a head-on collision thereby making the impact twice as effective. This type of defense is one of the most useful because, as Kanazawa-sensei clearly explains in many of his seminars, “tai no sen” strategy allows a defender to conserve some of his energy by using only about 75% of his total power, but when combined with the 100% commitment of the attacker the resulting effect is far greater than a 100% counter attack against an already completed attacking technique, as in “go no sen” strategy. The drawback of this type of defense is that you are still betting on your superior speed, timing and technical ability against your opponent. On those occasions when you meet up with a superior opponent you will quickly see your ideas of “tai no sen” strategy revert back to “go no sen” strategy.
The final strategy of harmonizing with your opponent is called “sen no sen,” which could be translated as “pre-emptive strike” or “advance attack”. As the “Do” of “karate-do” suggests, we have a moral obligation to use our art as a defensive art and not as an aggressive attacking art. Master Gichin Funakoshi echoed this sentiment with his precept of “karate ni sentenashi”, which is very often translated as “there is no first attack in karate”. Quite frankly speaking though, would you stand still if someone drew a knife against your child and wait for them to strike first? Would you wait for someone who was cursing at the top of their lungs at your wife to take the first shot before you reacted? Would you allow someone with a broken bottle to take a swing at your face? I hope not! Sometimes the actions of your opponent require immediate action on your part without any thought or second doubts. It is at this point that you are able to “read” your opponent and sense their ill-advised intentions and react both pre-emptively and appropriately. This is “sen no sen”. So back in the dojo this is characterized by that moment between two opponents when one is about to strike but the attack hasn’t yet happened. This moment is sometimes referred to as “the gap” between intention and action. Your job is to utilize “yomi” (reading of your opponent) and take decisive and immediate action before your opponent is able to follow through. If done correctly it really doesn’t matter what precise techniques you use because if you deliver them in the split second of opportunity, your opponent will be completely overwhelmed and defeated. This type of attack relies heavily on the “ikken hissatsu” (one strike, end of story) philosophy that is so often romanticized in our beloved karate legends, but as always you could add several additional counter strikes to make sure the job is done properly!
When you have all of the above defensive strategies in your kumite arsenal you are on the way to being able to fully harmonize with your opponent. Once again your ultimate goal is to avoid potentially harmful conflicts as much as possible but in the times when decisive action is necessary, your kumite drills should reappear as naturally as your knee-jerk reactions of bowing to your sensei, saying “osu” in class, or yelling out your “kiai” at the climax of your kata performances. The difference is that your well-honed kumite reactions might just save your life!