Saturday, August 2, 2014

Some lessons I've learned from

Bogu Kumite

Kenwa Mabuni and Ryzaemon Matsuwara  practicing Bogu Kumite.

     The importance of training as realistically as possible cannot be overstated.  Experiencing the techniques we are practicing being applied to us is every bit as important as being able to experience applying the techniques to others; like Bruce Lee famously asserted, "boards don't hit back."  Certainly there is a benefit to hitting boards, makiwara, and heavy bags, but to feel what it is really like to hit an actual person is of the utmost importance.  As is knowing what it feels like to really be hit by an actual person.
Even for Daniel, no Kumite, no Karate...
 I still remember the first night I practiced contact Kumite.  I had been training in Martial Arts since I was a child, in many styles and systems, but never once had anyone actually hit me.  I mean HIT me.  Sure, when I was practicing Shotokan, we had some prearranged sparring, and 3-step drills, and even some light Jiyu-Kumite, but never was there real contact.  Punches and blocks were full power, so there was forearm to forearm contact, but should an attack not be blocked, it was considered to be a sign of expertise that the blow should stop short of its target, so as to not hurt the defender, even in sparring.  But now, here I was learning old-school Okinawan Karate, and this was contact Jiyu-Kumite (free sparring).  Strategies that work great in tournaments or point sparring were immediately useless to me.  I used to fair quite well in sparring, but this night, my first night of contact Kumite, I was bounced off of walls with kicks, I had a rib cracked, and I was repeatedly dropped to the floor by well timed sweeps, among various other embarrassing episodes that evening.  And, worse yet, almost nothing I tried got through their defenses, or if it did, it was ignored and ineffectual, only setting me up to be hit more.  This made me realize the error of non contact training.  I had been convinced over the years that Kata and Kihon were sufficient for you to handle yourself, and that pulling punches was a sign of expertise and also a testament to the deadly nature of these attacks.  I think there is an unspoken implication in non-contact schools that the techniques are too dangerous to be used against a training partner.  So here are a few of the lessons I learned from full contact fighting, especially in Bogu (protective "armor" and head gear, originally similar to what Kendoka wear, but now are available in many varieties), that were completely missing from my experience with non-contact/point sparring.  Hopefully these points will help someone else along their path, as they have for me.   
A typical modern mask for Kumite

  1. Follow up attacks:  In point fighting, only one clear technique can be awarded the point.  In order for the judges to see your strike and award you the point, there is a tendency to only throw one strike. Whether a counter to another strike, or a direct attack, a judge cannot score a flurry of techniques so that is not advantageous to a competitor.  Also, in Kihon practice this view is often reflected as well, as in practicing block/punch combinations like "rising block/reverse punch".  In contact Kumite, it is very clear what attacks went through, and the only judge is you and your opponent.  While a tournament judge might just call a clash, and award no points, a full contact fighter knows that when two techniques hit simultaneously the stronger or more well placed attack wins.  Point training also has the effect of making you pause after a successful strike.  While you expect someone to separate you and say "point" for your reverse punch to your opponent's midsection, your opponent continues attacking you.  What is the point (so to speak) of hitting your opponent in the abdomen and then stopping?  In a real fight, or contact Kumite, your opponent is going to continue attacking you.  You landed the reverse punch first, but your opponent immediately back-fists you to the face, followed by a face punch, followed by a sweep. This is life and death, not a game of tag.  Point fighting creates the dangerous attitude of "I got you" by rewarding a practitioner for being able to quickly touch their opponent before their opponent can touch them.  There is a pervading sense of "imagine that was a deadly blow instead of tapping you on the stomach".  You are rewarded for speed, not for efficacy.  A police officer is trained that if they draw their weapon, they must have the intent to fire.  And, if they fire, they fire until the opponent is dropped; not just one round.  No warning shots, and no wounding shots.
    Karate do yes, or Karate do no.  There is no Karate do 'guess so'...
     That is the essence of self-defense.              Do nothing unless you intend to do everything to save your life, or the life of those you care about.  Like the dialogue between Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi: "Either you karate do "yes" or karate do "no." You karate do "guess so," [makes squish gesture] just like grape. Understand?" 
  2. Proper distancing:  The practice of pulling punches and kicks without landing them fully is entirely detrimental to understanding proper distancing.  Just as one can't expect to play violin by practicing
    Jimmy Fallon and Ashton Kutcher demonstrate
    excellent point-fighting technique.  Kutcher gets the point here... 
    piano, how do you expect to deliver strikes with efficacy if you only train in how to not hit someone? Even if you practice with heavy bags and makiwara, a moving target is even more difficult to gauge proper distancing, and striking a person is very different than hitting bags and makiwara as well.  Both physically, and mentally.  There is also a tendency for people trained to pull their punches to, more or less, attack their opponent's hands rather than their bodies.  That is to say, they are accustomed to a partner blocking their attack; so there is no intention of ever striking the defender.  And because of pulling punches in training, even if not blocked you tend to leave a cushion of space, so as not to make contact should he miss the block.  Think of children playing with toy swords, they are attacking with the intention of their partner blocking the strikes, so much so that what ends up happening is each kid attacks the other kid's sword, rather than attacking the other kid.  Why?  Because they are emulating movies, and have no intention of harming anyone;  they just want to replicate movie fights. Point sparring operates identically.  You want to hear "Ting Ting" as metal clashes with metal; not the screams of an opponent cut down by a sword.      
  3. Proper timing:  Closely related to the distancing point above, having good timing is very important for successfully defending yourself.  Not having proper distancing, and not having contact during training result in the inability to accurately judge when a strike will hit you (since you are used to people being further away, usually Maai, or a distance such that an opponent would have to take a
    step towards you to hit you).  Blocking too early or too late are both bad, and striking
    A lot of what Japanese Karate think of as Karate ritual or concepts
    are actually traced back to Kendo and Judo practice, and not
    present in Okinawan Karate.  Maai and other concepts are owed
    to Kendo as above.
    the proper target at the right moment is far more effective than just striking the same target.  For instance, you get a point when you strike an opponent's solar plexus whether they are breathing in or out at the moment of impact (or pulled impact as it were).  In full contact Kumite, or real life, you want to time such a strike to knock the air out of an opponent, and end the fight there.
  4. Targeting:  Chuck Norris described a tactic he used in which he would feint a punch to the face, and then land a reverse punch to the stomach.  While that would get you the point in a tournament, in reality it would open you up to counter attacks that a point fighter need not be concerned with.  Also, Bogu Kumite will quickly absolve you of any interest in punching people in the stomach.  While it is useful in certain situations, it will never drop someone, at least not while you are actually fighting (maybe a sucker punch), anywhere near as effectively as by attacking the face.  If you disagree, consider this: would you stand still, hands at your side, and let someone strike your stomach?  Now would you let the same person strike your face?  I bet most Karateka would say yes to the first question.  It's even a popular training method for body conditioning.  Many arts practice striking various regions to strengthen them.  But never the face.  When you practice point sparring, you are concerned with regions that earn points.  You attack those areas, and you defend those areas, and you ignore areas that are "illegal".  In contact training, you are always focused on vital areas.  You train to attack the legs, groin, throat, eyes, face, etc, and you train to defend those same areas as well.     
  5. Being hit:  Nothing can prepare you for what it is like to get hit in the face like getting hit in the face
    can.  Even with a full face mask on, the impact of being hit hard in the head is staggering.  Not only does it hurt a lot, it will temporarily confuse you and disorient you as well.  This isn't exclusively about head hunting either.  Even the experience of having someone side kick your thigh, or roundhouse kick your shin, or even the feeling when two people kick at the same time and smash shins together, is exactly the sort of things point sparring avoids, and real conflicts cannot avoid. In point sparring, you are rewarded for kicking above your opponent's head!  In Bogu Kumite, you learn quickly that there is a reason old-school Karate kicks are always aimed low.  
  6. Punching is nearly useless:  The bread and butter of point sparring is the reverse punch.
    Point fighters practice this...
     While some other techniques are still legal, such as ridge hands and palm strikes, those tend to be harder for judges to see when compared to a clear punch with a kiai, so those techniques are discouraged in training, or at the least, neglected.  As a result, the goal of a Sport Karateka is to have as many ways of quickly slipping in a punch to a non vulnerable area, with no intention of making contact. Other than a punch to the face, contact Kumite teaches you quickly that punching anywhere else is ineffectual, and even with the face, there are far better options than Seiken.  Traditional Karate has many different types of "punches" such as one-knuckle punches, fore-knuckle punches, hammer fists, etc., not to mention the other strikes!  Point sparring cannot "waste" time by
    ...though traditional Karateka pratcice these (among others)...
    training in these old methods.  To a judge, a regular fist, or a one-knuckle punch, or a fore-knuckle punch all look the same, so why waste time training these subtle differences.  A contact fighter knows why that isn't a waste of time after the first time a knuckle punch goes between his ribs.  And, a sport fighter typically doesn't get a point for a strike with the lead hand (not to mention it is again discouraged as not being clearly visible to a judge).  In real confrontation, or in full contact training, you often find that striking immediately with your blocking hand, and then following up with your hikite hand is far better than blocking with one hand and striking with the other. One of my favorite techniques is to block with a Kakuto Uke, followed by a Palm Heel to the temple or face with the same hand.  Very effective and immediate, while nearly impossible to defend against, as my block has pushed your arm away, removing your ability to use it to block my followup (which leads to more followup immediately).  And the Judges say...  No points!
  7. It is better to not attack than to have a weak attack:  Point sparring creates a safety zone where practitioners are encouraged to try tactics like hopping towards your opponent on one foot throwing light roundhouse kicks (that even if they made contact would amount to being slapped by a foot).  Sometimes this tactic can force your
    opponent out of the ring, scoring you a point.  Wild spinning kicks and other showmanship techniques are safe in this environment, and encouraged, as they please judges and crowds.  I'm not suggesting techniques such as spinning kicks shouldn't be used ever, but if it fails in a real fight, or even in full contact training, you will immediately regret the attempt.  If you slip or fall at a tournament while trying a fancy kick, a referee will stop the match and you will get up.  If it happens in a real situation, or contact training, it will decide your fate.  In Sport Karate it is OK to attempt some attacks that you don't "mean" in an attempt to read your opponent, or intimidate, or create an opening for your punch.That is never the 
    case in a real fight, or in Bogu Kumite.  By "testing" your opponent, you are creating vulnerabilities in your own defenses that will be exploited. When you throw that
    jab to the midsection to see where his hands move you will find that, unlike in point fighting where your opponent will react to a midsection punch to avoid losing the point, a full contact fighter will repeatedly punch you in the face while you "slip under his guard" and "land" that reverse punch that always gets you the point.  This is another lesson of "Karate ni sente nashi", or there is no first attack in Karate.  We discussed this ideal in my Bunkai article, but in this context, I think the phrase has another useful reading.  While part of the meaning of the statement is to use Karate for defense, in this instance, it can be useful to interpret it to mean Karate is most effective when used to exploit your opponent's attack.  As in, wait for their attack and then eliminate the threat as quickly and effectively as possible by recognizing the openings they create by attacking.  In other words, Karate is only for defense for two reasons.  1. The moral implications that one should not seek violence or to harm others, and 2. That Karate is most effective when used in defense.      
  8. Precision and timing are more important than speed:  The aspects that make for a successful Karate technique include Timing, Accuracy, Speed, and Strength; or what I like to call TASS (I've literally never called it that...).  These are akin to what is sometimes called the "Triple Constraint" of Quality: Time, Cost, and Scope.  That is to say that the
    quality of the 
    product will be affected by changing any of those three areas, unless at least one of the other areas are also changed.  Imagine you are given a month to create a product, with a budget of $100, that will perform 10 functions.  Now, imagine that the person ordering this product wants 20 functions.  In order to achieve this new goal, it will require an increase in budget, or an increase in time, otherwise the quality will be negatively affected.  The same is true of Karate.  It is crucial to identify the most important aspect to emphasize, realizing it is at the cost of the other attributes.  To a point fighter, power is absolutely meaningless as there is no contact allowed anyway.  Precision isn't terribly important because you are scored for hitting areas, such as the midsection, not specific points, such as the solar plexus.  Timing is of use in point fighting, but speed is by far the most important aspect for a point fighter.  Speed at the cost of power and precision.  For a full contact fighter, precision and timing are by far the most important.  You don't have to be overly strong or fast to poke an eye, or throat, or the groin; but you absolutely have to be precise, and strike at the right moment.  Speed, in many cases, is actually your enemy as a very fast punch doesn't mean a punch that will land in a significant target, with significant power.  Timing, when coupled with precision, is indistinguishable from speed.   
  9. One should avoid fighting if at all possible:  This is by far the most important lesson of Bogu Kumite training.  You will get hit hard and often, even if you "win" the match. In non-contact fighting, even the fighter that is defeated, has not been hit.  No matter how excellent you are, you will be hit nonetheless, and it will be in the face.  Having the experience of fighting full contact, you understand the potential for injury to yourself as well as the opponent, and you also have any notion of ending the altercation with a single blow completely eliminated from your mind.  Point sparring can have the effect of making people think they are really tough, and that a fight won't go further than hitting someone a couple of times in the stomach (or worse, even once).  
    After landing a weak punch, Daniel attempts to shake hands and end the confrontation,
    but Johnny is now embarrassed by getting hit, and is only more angry.
    The reality is quite different, and to stop a real attacker from continuing to attack you after you have hit them requires brutally effective techniques and the ability to execute them full power against another person.  There is no "OK, I got you man, now we're even", there is only incapacitating the opponent.  
Until Shigeru Nakamura popularized full contact Bogu Kumite in the years after WWII, Karate training had been almost entirely Kata training.  Many masters of the time were at odds with Nakamura over this choice, stating that if one practiced the Kata enough they would be capable of handling themselves in a real situation, and that Karate techniques were too dangerous to perform against one another.  As I outlined above, it isn't necessarily the case that Kata training will prepare you for a real fight, if for no other reason than not knowing what it is like to continue fighting after getting hit in the face.  And, Nakamura argued that with the Bogu, the techniques could finally be evaluated through research and study under actual fighting conditions with real contact, but without injury.  Which leads us to the last thing I've learned from Full-Contact Bogu Kumite training: that some people will hide behind statements like "the techniques are too deadly", or "Kata is all you need to be a great fighter", because they have built themselves up in their own minds, as well as in the minds of their students or the public.  For a Karate Master such as that, being hit even once in the face, has the effect of diminishing his delusions of invincibility both in his own view, and in the eyes of his students.  In other words, some people have built up their image to such a degree that anything that may make them seem less awe-inspiring is to be avoided at all costs; they want to seem perfect.  Kata training alone leads one to ask themselves the question "are you tall?", to which someone trained in Kata alone would reply "yes, I am tall."  Bogu Kumite teaches us instead to ask "how tall are you", to which an experienced fighter would say "taller than some, and shorter than others.  I am six feet tall."  
Shigeru Nakamura, founder of Okinawa Kenpo, creator of Bogu Kumite.
While I do not think Bogu Kumite should be mistaken for reality, I do think that it goes a long way towards helping one understand what reality has in store for them. MMA is excellent in this regard, because those fighters train to understand what getting hit and hitting really feel like.  The drawback of course, is that it too is a sport fight where contestants are not concerned about being bitten, or hit in the groin, or having their eyes gouged, and do not train to prepare for it.  Karate training has always been and should always be about absolute life and death encounters, not competitions.  In any art, once you train to defend against your own art, you are in a sport.  The old Masters were always clear that for Karate to be effective, it needs to be a secret weapon against a villain.  Karate is like bringing a gun to a knife fight so to speak. It has never encouraged fair play, it has always been about eliminating an imminent threat as fast and as completely as possible.  True Karate takes place when you are drunk, walking to a train station at night by yourself.  It never takes place in a ring.  Choki Motobu understood this, and he was among the first (or at the very least, the most notable) Okinawans to really test his skill in real fights against untrained fighters on the street in combat; not in a duel.  Nakamura took the next step, and created a way that his students could approximate that experience in a more sustainable and scalable fashion.  Imagine hundreds of Karate students out looking for fights every night!  Okinawa isn't very large, and the people would tire of
Choki Motobu
that quickly.  Bogu Kumite was the solution.  Nakamura realized that by having students fight each other, there is the threat of training to fight against other Karateka, but this is tempered by the serious and realistic Kata and Kihon training of the time.  They were not training to become Bogu Kumite fighters, but rather used Bogu Kumite to understand the other elements that solo training alone cannot provide.  They would still practice and preserve the very dangerous techniques of Karate.  This isn't the case in point fighting schools, and in many cases MMA schools as well.  They train to win matches.  A sport fighter doesn't want to waste time learning techniques and strategies that aren't allowed in the competition, and they base their confidence solely on their performance in those competitions.

So,  MMA is a wonderful tool for developing a realistic idea of combat, but it should not be an end in itself.  If the focus of your training is on saving your life on the street, then MMA style competition is excellent as a part of your overall training.  Bogu Kumite is the best way a Karateka can still train the more authentic Karate techniques without risk of serious injury, but still gaining an understanding of combat.  But here too it is important that one train to defend one's life in a real situation, and not slip into training for Kumite.  Point fighting is responsible for the overall decline of Karate in the last 40 years, as it has ushered in an era of people training for non-contact sports.  As a result, most of the authentic Karate techniques have been eliminated from their training, and they are more concerned with how they look to a judge than if they can handle themselves in a real situation.  
This isn't what Kata is for...

And another point of misunderstanding in the Karate community that really bothers me is the misunderstanding of Kata's place in relation to Kumite, or sparring, or competition.  Funakoshi, though not a proponent of sparring of any kind, still has incredibly valuable advice that, I feel, has been misinterpreted over the years.  Funakoshi said: "It must be emphasized that sparring does not exist apart from kata, but for the practice of kata, so naturally there should be no corrupting influence on one's kata from one's sparring practice. When one becomes enthusiastic about sparring, there is a tendency for his kata to become bad. Karate, to the very end, should be practiced with kata as the principal method and sparring as a supporting method."  Unfortunately, many Karateka misinterpret this quote entirely.  As one Shotokan website states, as an explanation of the preceding quote: "The original intent of kumite practice was to allow students to apply the offensive and defensive techniques practiced in kata against real, instead of imaginary opponents."  That isn't quite it (or, honestly, even remotely it).  When Funakoshi says "sparring does not exist apart from kata, but for the practice of kata" he is not saying sparring is there to use the techniques from Kata.  He is saying that if anything, sparring is only useful to help a student understand what the movements in a Kata are for.  Sparring is not separate from Kata, it is for Kata.  Kata is absolutely not for sparring.  He goes on to say that "naturally there should
Motobu demonstrates what Kata is for...
be no corrupting influence on one's kata from one's sparring practice".  In other words, forget the things you might "learn" from sparring, and focus only on the understanding of Kata through sparring.  Remember, your Kata contain real self defense scenarios, not sparring tactics.  That is what he means by "
When one becomes enthusiastic about sparring, there is a tendency for his kata to become bad".  Karate is Kata.  If your Kata become bad, your Karate is bad.  This is the entire reason so many people are of the opinion that practicing Kata is completely useless to a fighter.  That is simply because those people, when they say fighter, mean a person interested in sparring with other Karateka.  That is why I urge that even Bogu Kumite, though better than alternatives, should not be mistaken for reality, nor should one train to be good at Bogu Kumite.  One should train to be good at Karate, and good at protecting one's life, and your Kumite will be good incidentally.  So to a point fighter, I absolutely agree.  Aside from making your Kata look really nice, with loud snapping sleeves for competition, the Kata do you no good at all.  There are literally no lessons to be learned about sparring with another Karateka.  When these Kata were codified, there were no other Karateka to be concerned with; they were inventing Karate!  So yes, Kata is utterly useless in fighting.  But fighting is utterly useless in self-defense.  Karate is not about fighting.  True Karate is self-defense alone.  What is your Karate for?  Self-defense, or fighting?  If your answer is anything other than "self-defense", you are not practicing Karate anyway. If you just like hitting people, take up boxing.  If you want to learn how to save your life when it matters, learn Kata, and practice Kata (never perform Kata...).  If you want to know if you'll be able to execute Kata techniques under stress, while dealing with the psychological and physical trauma of real encounters, augment your Kata with full contact training of some kind. 
      I hope that this has helped some people to understand the place sparring of any kind has in true Karate, and that without contact, sparring is useless to Karate; in fact it is detrimental.   


  1. "So, MMA is a wonderful tool for developing a realistic idea of combat, but it should not be an end in itself."

    So is point sparring. Ignore synchronised kata.

    The best point sparrers are good fighters. The hopeless guys are hopeless - but this is true with MMA as well.

    "Point fighting is responsible for the overall decline of Karate in the last 40 years, as it has ushered in an era of people training for non-contact sports. "

    Only if you let it.

    My Sensei refers to karate as a table. It has four legs: point sparring, full contact, kihon (include "self defence") and kata (include realistic bunkai, weapons and two person drills). [Some of these encompass tuite, falling, locking, arresting motions and the application of body conditioning).

    The analogy is far from perfect but it works.

    Although you say elsewhere Funakoshi eschewed board breaking, it has value. If somone can do a variety of breaks, they are probably ready in terms of body conditioning to begin full contact sparring for their Yudansha grades.

    Point sparring is good because people can learn to fight before they can take full blown full contact. Bogu kumite is good, but just like Kyokushin, it has limitations (just as you point out elsewhere, as does Mc Carthy Hanshi, that the UFC is rule bound and has limitations). Point sparring also is cheaper than bogu kumite. I like to train with weapons, but the cost of protective equipment makes sparring (a true pressure test of skill and competence) with weapons unfeasible.

    The drills, fitness, plymoetrics and footwork of the high level WKF competitors is directly transferrable to all other combative methods. I've mentioned Machida before. He was high ranking, but there are guys who went better than him with better, more effective, quicker footwork.

    Bare knuckle knockdown karate is a good way to preserve the variety of hand techniques on offer. A sly one knuckle punch with the thumb, and seizing back fat or muscle is impossible in bogu (as useful as it is).

    For a time when I competed, the WKF allowed limited takedowns and throws. it was good and forced some styles who dropped these before to relearn throws, takedowns, counters and breakfalls.

    The older rules and equipment in WKF point fighting allowed you to compete with minimal protective equipment and with punches to the head. Sure they tried to pull punches, but I've seen plenty of KOs and concussions at high and low level WKF endorsed and WKF rule following tournaments.

    Some bogu kumite would have been instructive for these players. LOL.

    Your point about being the best at bogu kumite not necessarily serving your self defence goals may well be correct. However we have that repeated idea that self defence was usually practiced against untrained, unprincipled attackers.


    Sometimes. A competitive enviroment like a judo match allows for counters and to attempt to achieve positional dominance. Like you have noted elsewhere, katas and bunkai had solutions for grappling/being tackled as an entry to being assaulted. They also taught counter movements to grappling. Contrary to your beef about multiple bunkai, Mc Carthy Hanshi once showed 35 applications for Bassai Dai (the salutation). One was an escape from a policeman's armbar ("Akushu Ude Tori" or handshake armbar in Danzan Ryu Jujutsu), one other was a counterattack to a tackle or a shoot.

  2. I not only enjoyed reading this article but also got fascinated on receiving such a useful piece of information about firearms training. I always recommend people on getting the formal firearms training for better skills and survival tactics.

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  3. Hi there. Would you know of any dojo in the Chiba or Tokyo area that are like shotokan but do bogu kumite? Very interested in this type of kumite.