In our karate training, we rigorously develop the body so as to be able to deliver the one definitive blow. This is one potentially lethal technique, striking the opponent in order to effectively and decisively stop them. We do this by using the whole body’s mass, delivered at the most effective moment of conflict, at maximum speed and commitment. This is Ikken Hisatsu.
Karate contains so many different elements, and although the skills they develop are embedded and become transferable, their potential is not always maximised. I remember a childhood activity my school teacher would make me do – ‘Dot to Dot’ - where you have a piece of paper covered in dots with numbers next to them. You take a pencil and you join the dots in order of number, therefore joining the number 1 dot to the number 2 dot by drawing a line and so on and so forth. Then when all the lines are joined, you should have a picture, maybe of a dog, cat or big fluffy teddy bear.
I see karate very much as that piece of paper covered in dots. Each of these dots represent the different elements that make up Shotokan – Kihon, Kata, Bunkai, Oyo, the various types of kumite, Close proximity kumite and the list goes on, and on.
We are all given this piece of paper covered in dots when we start karate, but rarely do we learn how to effectively join them in order to reveal the bigger picture. If you never learn how to join these dots in karate, practicing kata for example will become terribly futile. It has no meaning and will remain, when all is said and done, simply a series of techniques organised in a recognisable sequence. What a waste that is.
Here I would like to discuss the role of Jiyu-ippon kumite in our karate development within this article, as I truly think it is one of the most important elements for development of the karateka and his/her mental and physical improvement and I believe this should be integrated thoroughly into the training of both the seasoned karateka as well as the newly graded brown belt.
Today however (for many groups), Jiyu-ippon kumite has become solely recognised as a part of the brown and black belt syllabus. It is however the stepping stone between Ippon kumite and the free-style movement of Jiyu-kumite; but it most importantly develops mental strength, confidence and commitment, key characteristics essential to reality based conflict.
But beyond brown belt, or the early stages of black belt, in many groups I have seen, Jiyu-ippon kumite gets lost. I feel however that this form of structured kumite has benefits above and beyond grading requirement. For the benefit of this article, I will refer to Jiyu-ippon kumite as JIK in order to save my fingers.
Here within this article, I would like to join some dots.
JIK starts with the respectful bow. From there on (please forgive difference in delivery due to organisation preference) the opponent calls a series of attacks and delivers them with utmost commitment. To these attacks the defender must escape the peril of impact, and counter attack decisively. Attention to distance and timing is essential here, and effective tai-sabake is vital in order to not only avoid impact, but to also prepare for effective counter attack. The transferable skills developed here are limitless, but for me, one of the most important aspects developed is the mental conditioning JIK can offer when practiced with a suitable mindset.
Broken down simply, the attacker’s objective is to attack and defender’s job is to avoid impact and deliver a counter attack. The exercise develops both roles – offensive and defensive, so I would like to discuss both.
Karate is built upon the principle of ‘One hit, one kill’. To see examples of this concept, you need only look at footage of Mikio Yahara mid attack, or Taiji Kase striking with his unique and potentially lethal open hand techniques. Each blow contains sufficient energy to kill. It is simple and incredibly honest, and is the technique that separates you from death or survival. If we think of other forms of Budo, perhaps those Martial Arts that employ the use of the sword, they bring into absolute clarity the simplicity of life and death. If you are cut by the sword, you can encounter instantaneous death. Grasping this concept with Martial Arts that do not employ weapons however is a little harder.
Within karate, we are developing the body in order to use the hands, elbows, knees and feet as weapons. So whilst we do not hold the sword in our hand, the lethal potential remains more than present. From the perspective of developing this mindset of refining the attack, JIK is the perfect experience.
Prior to my attack, I like to stalk my opponent. I hunt my opponent down, metaphorically corner them and launch forward with my attack. Ever seen a lion on the hunt? They don’t run at their prey from afar, stampeding along and scaring off the food. No, they creep up, make their distance and go in for the kill. I remember looking back at my days as a 3rd Kyu, when I would follow my opponent for a small duration of time and then just attack. Looking back, the exercise was fruitless, and little was developed.
As the attacker now however, I use the attacking role as a challenge. I attack with complete commitment to hitting my opponent. If I fail in my launch forward and they block and counter, then in my own head, I am dead. Sensei Yahara, in our interview with him last year gave us a beautiful quote that I love to use when teaching. He said ‘Once the katana is unsheathed, blood will follow,either that of your opponent or yours’. To me this perfectly conveys the attitude needed in order to deliver the one definitive blow.
Of course, within JIK, the exercise determines that you will get blocked and you will get countered upon. I train my students however to never let the defender have an easy go. They need to be under the pressure of attack, which naturally lifts the development of the defender. I stalk them, get them into the position I need to deliver the technique (by lining the opponent up correctly) and then execute the attack.
With my students I encourage them to analyse their attack, by removing all indicators of movement that could tell the defender that you are about to move. Ideally, I want to hit the opponent before he realises he is being attacked. Movement must be instantaneous, as Sensei Kase once said “0 -100% in the shortest amount of time possible”. I really want to put the opponent under pressure.
Closely linked with this of course is the eye contact. This is essential for several reasons. The constant eye contact develops the intensity between the two in combat – the threat and challenge – like looking into the eyes of a tiger, challenging it. When on the hunt, keep the eyes constant, fixed and with the ferocity of a predator on the hunt for its prey.
As the defender, I try to not think of myself as the hunted, for this - from the perspective of the mindset needed for kumite - would make me feel vulnerable and at the mercy of the attacker. Please do not misunderstand me here, in my own head, the sincerity and severity I place on the emerging attack is never belittled. I view the attack being launched as having the potential to kill me. One wrong move and I am dead. I therefore have one chance to escape in order to survive and to then ensure they are not capable of attacking again. In light of this intensity however, if I feel like I am the hunted, I will crumble under the pressure and will be unable to defend myself effectively. At no time is it permitted within my defence to let ego win…I am still under attack, but I am in control of the situation. I tell my black belts to train (as the defender) against children in the same way that you would against an adult. Don’t allow the perception that the child cannot hurt you to diminish the experience of conflict. Yes, it is probably true that a child will not hurt you in the way that a man would, but the intensity remains with you at all times.
Within the realms of distance, it is argued that the attacker controls this. Invariably this is often the case, but that does not mean nonetheless that you are not capable of switching the dynamics of the conflict and turning disadvantage to advantage. Therefore, changing the distance and ruining the attacker’s perspective of it can be very useful. An example could be the attack of mae-geri, and the defender closes the distance, ruining the extension of the kick. This can be used very well with the simultaneous block/counter. You must then immediately escape this distance, keeping eye contact and always remaining in control.
Jiyu-Ippon Kumite – Integrated
As I spoke about at the beginning of the article, it is important to see each element of the Shotokan syllabus and appreciate how it is relevant to the improvement of other areas. Practicing kihon for form, kata for strategy, kumite education and form, kumite for kumite, and self defence for self defence, all as separate entities seems a little odd. Far more important, I feel, is the use of each aspect of the syllabus to affect others.
So in what ways does Jiyu-ippon kumite influence the rest of the karate study?
I will only give two examples for the benefit of time and space within this article. I will discuss Kata and Close Proximity Kumite.
It is important to remember, whole heartedly, that karate is first and foremost a form of self defence. Yes, we use this art as a vehicle in order to perfect character, but it is and should be a form of defending yourself from a violent attacker.
As much as we hate to admit it, we will rarely get attacked by an oi-zuki or a mae-geri. It is most prominently violence upon the pavements, where rules, form and decency do not exist. The attacker – possibly high on drugs, drunk off his face or just bitter and insecure – wants to put you to the floor. Upon getting you there, they will do anything and everything they can to keep you there. Possibly, the pack will come in for some fun too!
Rigorous and committed practiced of JIK can be used very effectively as a developmental tool to prepare us for reality based combat. Most significantly of course, it places extreme emphasis on Zanshin (Awareness) with uncompromising eye contact. Every subtle movement of the attacker is observed, and responded to appropriately. You are involved in a life or death situation within the safe realms of the dojo. Your own head however creates an “Unsafe” mentality, for no matter how controlled the attack, it’s a matter of kill or be killed – a base natural instinct and JIK refines its use.
It also of course develops understanding of distance and timing quite well (timing your response to your opponent for maximum effect) and very significantly gives you an opportunity to kill your opponent without hurting them.
An additional exercise that can work quite well is using the format of JIK within a shorter range, replacing Oi-zuki with a short range lunging cross, chudan with an upper cut, mae geri with a knee strike to the groin etc.
In essence, it helps give you a severe intensity, and brings to the forefront of your practice the danger and lethal implications of your karate techniques.
The affect JIK has on kata is immeasurable. I have, in recent months in particular been sure to not do one kata session without a hint of JIK involved. Naturally, different kata (Nijushiho and Sochin as perfect examples) have different approaches to combat, and I ask the karateka to make their defence reflect in some way the kata we are practicing.
For me, kata is for combat education and for execution. Through analysing kata, I understand and am able to study the strategies for kumite. The kata are our fighting education and through rigorous study we are able to expand our understanding of kumite – both within the realms of Shotokan kumite and especially reality based kumite. The second part of the kata study is the execution. This also should never be over looked.
Sadly there’s a divide amongst some groups over the purpose of kata. Some practice kata solely for the form and execution, whilst others practice it solely for the application. Both I do not feel are totally rounded as both have essential implications.
Executing the kata is very important as it gives you an opportunity to fight without an opponent. You are able to take the knowledge of your combat education and feed it back into your performance. Therefore the kata influences the application and the application influences the execution.
What I typically tend to do within my kata session is have them execute their kata at the end of the session (after we have practiced it for the entirety of the class). Then I get them to practice JIK, and then do the kata one last time. I can, hand on heart, say that the delivery of the kata is so different. There’s an intensity, a violence, a brutality...a completely different experience for me, the audience, and most importantly for them, the karateka.
Practicing JIK helps them visualise more effectively I have found, as it turns karate from being shapes and movements into actual deadly techniques. It makes every block an escape from death and every punch/strike/kick puts a resounding silence to the chaos of violence.
Effective use of JIK, I truly feel, adds a new dimension to the kata and helps give it blood and guts; a mental energy as well as a physical energy.
I really cannot say enough about JIK. It is so often over looked by some, and some will no doubt say that much of what it teaches can be found elsewhere, but I truly feel like a warrior when I practice JIK. I am able to tap into the reality of death and survival. I ask my students very often to practice it slow motion. I was recently asked why and I told them it was “to marinate in the feeling of escaping and delivering the killing blow”.
Karate is full of dots on a piece of paper and Jiyu-ippon kumite is one of these dots. All I want to do, as a student, is to continue to join the dots and reveal the bigger and more vivid picture and paint it with intensity.