Kumite – Hand in Hand with Your Opponent

(by Marc Janott, June 2015, revised June 2016)

Part 8 of 8: Shotokan Kyohan Kumite

Now that we have established a menu of different types of kumite to choose from, wouldn't it be interesting to have a look at what traditional Shotokan kumite looked like?

The style of Shotokan explicitly refers to Gichin Funakoshi; as his pen name was “Shoto”. He taught karate at a dojo building which had been built by his students just for his teaching. They named that building “Shoto-Kan” (the Shoto house).

In his book “Karate-Do KyohanFunakoshi explains how he thinks karate should be practiced with a partner. I think it's safe to assume that Shotokan kumite under Gichin Funakoshi followed this description. After all his book is called Kyohan (教範), which means "teaching methods".

Gichin Funakoshi on Shotokan Kumite

Let's have a look at some quotes from "Karate-Do Kyohan" and a few other sources. After that I'll give a brief summary of Funakoshis idea of kumite, followed by further observations.

Funakoshi: Kumite is Kata Practise with a Partner

  • Sparring (kumite) is a form used to apply offensive and defensive techniques, practiced in the kata, under more realistic conditions, in which by prearrangement between participants one applies offensive and the other defensive techniques.
  • It must be emphasized that sparring does not exist apart from the kata but for the pratice of kata.
  • I recommend that one emphasize kata practice and train for sparring only secondarily [to avoid concentraiting on one's favorite special moves while neglecting others].

Funakoshi: Kumite is a Way to Understand Kata

  • It might be difficult for a spirited young man to understand the purpose of kata, so he will find it interesting after gaining some proficiency in the kata to practice sparring if he can find an appropriate partner and a suitable training area.

Funakoshi: Kumite is Self-Defence Training

  • One should first practice forms and basic techniques and eventually work up to sparring practice as one becomes more skillful, imagining situations that [one would] encounter most and constantly practicing them so that in a dangerous situation one may escape without harm.
  • When practicing, one should imagine various situations […] . The attacker may grasp the wrists, clothing, neck, or other parts of the body, and one must escape from his attempt to grasp and immediately deliver a counterattack. So the point to remember is the quickness of the counterattack, which is executed almost simultaneously while escaping from the attacker's hold. […] – Escape techniques may be used against front, side, and rear grasping attacks. Attacks from the front may include such techniques as grasping the wrist, both wrists, the collar, hair or hugging, etc., and side attacks such as grasping the wrist and grasping the neck; also attacks from the rear may consist of similar techniques such as grasping the wrist, grasping the collar, hugging, etc. There may be times when several attackers may attack from both sides or from front and back. Considering all situations, always think about and practice against such attacks.
  • In karate, hitting, thrusting, and kicking are not the only methods; throwing techniques and pressure against joints are also included.
  • When sufficient skill has been acquired through practice, a sword, dagger, stick and so on should actually be used in practice to learn the techniques against these weapons and to prepare oneself mentally against them.

Funakoshi: Kumite is not a sport

  • A characteristic that distinguishes [karate] as karate is that it cannot be commercialized or adapted for competition. Herein lies the essence of karate-do, as it cannot be realized with protective equipment or through competitive matches.

Kenei Mabuni, in his book “Leere Hand” (Empty Hand), tells us about his father Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-Ryu) and Gichin Funakoshi:

  • Originally, on Okinawa, competitions in karate did not exist, not even what today is called free kumite, i.e. randori friendly bouts, in which one can freely choose techniques. Under my father [Kenwa Mabuni] such a thing was strictly forbidden. The is true for Mater Funakoshi as well, who followed his Okinawan teachers in this regard. Symptomatic of this is an incident at Tokyo University in the late 1920s. The karate club there suggested a „real fighting karate“ format in which the participants would also wear protective gear. Master Funakoshi objected to this and prompted the person responsible to resign.

Karate = Kata = Kumite = Self-Defence Training

Funakoshi, in “Karate-Do Kyohan” as well as in other works such as “Karate-Do My Way of Life” or “The Essence of Karate”, repeatedly emphasises how karate and kata are the same thing, and how understanding katas as systems for self-defence is important. He saw kumite as supplementary to kata training.

  • The traditional Shotokan training method of kumite is a form of partner work to learn methods of self-defence based on karate katas.

This very much resembles the concept of kata oyo bunkai kumite as presented earlier.

Moreover, in his works, Funakoshi repeatedly emphasises the importance of gentle social behaviour to avoid conflict. He also told his students repeatedly that it is best to walk away from a fight. Therefore I suppose that he would probably also endorse some sort of self-defence scenario training, because it teaches you to perceive and asses situations of possible conflict as well as to use your verbal and physical skills when appropriate.

Since Funakoshi explicitly disapproved of any competition format of karate, the widely popular competition kumite and kata competition bunkai kumite are obviously not the traditional Shotokan way. In fact, the first All Japan Karate Championship was held only in October 1957, six months after Funakoshi had passed away (compare Wikipedia article on the JKA).

To put it as a simple formular:

  • Karate = Kata = Kumite = Self-Defence Training

With this position Master Funakoshi was in line with his fellow karate masters from Okinawa, his own teachers and the past masters.

Kihon Kumite at the Historical Shotokan Dojo

So what about kihon kumite? What was Funakoshi's position on them?

Well, karate historian Henning Wittwer writes in his book “Historische Untersuchungen zum Shotokan Band II“ ("Historical Research on Shotokan Volume II"):

  • Gohon-Gumite and Sanbon-Gumite originally came about at the karate clubs at the universities, where each club again developed their own “types“ of this kind of exercise. Funakoshi appearently was so taken with this creation that he did not only apply them to his kumite forms but he explicitly introduced Three [techniques] Kumite (Sanbon-Gumite) as an examination subject (Shikon-Kamoku) for examinations up to third level (Sandan) in his Shotokan-Dojo. Aside that, One [technique] Kumite (Ippon-Gumite) was a required Shotokan examination subject.

Although some of the moves in modern kihon kumite forms still resemble moves from katas, as a whole they are miles away from, maybe even contradictory to the tactical concepts and applications of kata (a topic for another article).

In the 1958 edition of Karate-Do Kyohan then we actually find several forms of kihon kumite, namely Ten no Kata Ura, sanbon kumite, ippon kumite, kicking matches, free sparring, iai and throwing techniques.

Note that Funakoshi does not present them as progressive levels of kumite. Instead he explains each one with a different training goal. For example Ten no Kata Ura is mainly about seriousness and distance, while sanbon kumite is about intention and alertness, and ippon kumite is about intuitive action and counter-action. – I suppose that his including free sparring is simply a concession to the reality that by the 1950s it had been widely practised. He highlights the similarity of karate free sparring with the sparring matches of other martial arts.

All in all he does not seem to be so strict about the exact choreography of kihon kumite, as he states that “attention should not be distracted by concern for the correctness of the form” (page 216). He also encourages us to “experiment with and practice other sparring techniques and also practise a series of different types of attacks and blocks” (page 222).

On the matter of Shotokan kyohan kumite I think Gichin Funakoshi should have the last word:

  • Karate, to the very end, should be practiced with kata as the principal method and sparring as a supporting method.