How to fight? The “Sen”-Concept in Karate

“Sen” is a fundamental and crucial concept for combat. However, Karateka either do not know about the variations of the concept or ignore its practical relevance. In his new colum “Karate Essence” Thomas McKinnon provides a detailed account of the concept, its variations, and how to apply it in practice.

Sen (jap. 先) means future, prior, to precede, or ahead, depending on the dictionary. In Budo terminology it is variously described as initiative. To Initiate: to cause or facilitate the beginning of something. For the advanced karateka, it is imperative to understand the concept of Sen in combat.

What is the Concept of Sen about?

Like most of the esoteric Japanese terms, I have studied and explored, there is a lot more to the various “Sen” terms than a direct translation to English can explain. We can distinguish at least four concepts:

  • Go no sen (jap. 後の先): After the attack, block/evade and counterattack.
  • Sen no sen (jap. 先の先): Intercepting the attack with simultaneous block/evade and counterattack.
  • Sen sen no sen (jap. 先先の先): Attack immediately when you become aware that your assailant is going to launch an attack.
  • Deai (jap. 出会い): Don’t wait until your assailant plans to launch an attack: attack immediately you are aware of the intention.

Taking Control Over the Fight

The above guidelines are fairly accurate, as far as they go, and they give you an idea about timing. However, there is something that should be clearly understood about the concept of Sen in combat: Go no sen, Sen no sen, Sen sen no sen or Deai are all forms of taking the initiative (taking control).

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Go no Sen: This video shows Sakata vs. Yamamoto during the 1982 JKA All Japan Championships.

I am actually talking about Budo: responses in real world conflict. Remember, the original purpose of karate was not for karateka to fight each-other in sport. It was for self-defense. To clarify: we could go way back to Bodhidharma’s (possibly the first) codified practice for self-defense (5th century AD). However, perhaps Funakoshi Gichin Sensei’s origins (19th century AD) with Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū, which addressed defense against the 36 habitual acts of civil violence, might be far enough back?

Sen is Present in Any Combat System

The Sen Principle, however, also relates to Ippon or Sanbon kumite, or sport karate in any of its forms, or indeed any sports combat in all of its various guises. To most spectators of the numerous sporting combat activities, the utilization of Sen might not be immediately apparent. If you were to talk to serious competitors in the said activities, though, most of them would completely understand the concept. They may not recognize the Japanese terms, but the concept of taking the initiative as it relates to the Sen Principal would be perfectly clear to them.

The Four Concepts of Sen in Detail

Go no Sen

The ‘Go’ (jap. 後) in ‘Go no sen’ means ‘after’. Quite literally, immediately after you’ve been attacked, let’s say with a punch, or indeed a flurry of punches – which you have effectively blocked/evaded – you counterattack. That’s not to say that if you fight with a Go no sen methodology you simply wait for the attack to take place. The purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage over your opponent.

You may, for instance, control your adversary’s timing by your own presence and tactics, actually dictating your assailant’s attack options (taking the initiative). Some karateka are naturally good counter fighters, Go no sen specialists, who excel in this area. With fast reflexes and a strong, dynamic spirit, or Kihaku, they control their adversary and the fight.

Example: Seeing an imminent attack, you might fake an attack: balking to trick your adversary into striking through an apparent hole in defenses, only to be blocked/evaded and counterattacked.

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Sen no Sen

Having control of the when, how and where, you can effectively block/evade while simultaneously delivering an effective counterattack; potentially finishing the encounter.

Example: Leaving your face apparently unguarded, offering your chin, you capitalist on your adversary’s attempt to punch you. Knowing the when and where, you will also limit his options in regard to how. Slipping the punch, using tai sabaki, perhaps covering with a heel palm block, while simultaneously delivering a body blow to the sternum. A version of this method, with tai sabaki as the major contributor of both defense and counterattack might also be called Tai no sen.

Sen Sen no Sen

When confronted by an adversary/opponent – your awareness in the appropriate state of Zanshin – reading your adversary’s intention to attack, you take the initiative, immediately launching a pre-emptive strike. Be aware: defending your-self using Sen sen no sen, it could appear that you arbitrarily attacked your adversary. Nevertheless, in a self-defense scenario, particularly if your adversary is in possession of a bladed or blunt force weapon, Sen sen no sen might be a highly advisable mode of action.

Deai

When facing an adversary in a real-life, combative confrontation, after behaving in accord with proper etiquette:

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  1. Giving your adversary no reason to attack you.
  2. Attempting to resolve the impending confrontation non-violently.
  3. Attempting to remove your-self from the situation.

You, unavoidably, find yourself facing a person intent on assaulting you. Deai may be a highly desirable option. Deai: attack as soon as you are aware of your assailant’s intention.

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Sen and the Bully: A Personal Account of Sen in Action

Sen no Sen

“Wait!… Can’t we talk about this?” I said, stepping between the assailant and my client. His immediate response was to throw a right hook. Executing a left age-uke – while using tai sabaki to close distance and slip inside his hook – intercepting the punch and, continuing the momentum, snaking around his neck, I locked-on a vice-like headlock. Sen no sen: taking the initiative, intercepting an attack while simultaneously counter attacking.

Thomas McKinnon received it practical combat training from the British Parachute Regiment. Later he studied several martial arts and became a high-risk Close Personal Protection Operative. He applied the concept of Sen regularly.
Thomas McKinnon received it practical combat training from the British Parachute Regiment. Later he studied several martial arts and became a high-risk Close Personal Protection Operative. He applied the concept of Sen regularly.

Go no Sen

Struggling briefly, he attempted to grab my privates. I was wearing a groin guard. I inserted my right thumb into his eye socket and he began to scream. Go no sen: block/evade and counterattack.

After soliciting an apology and a promise to behave civilly, I released him. However, as he became aware of the growing crowd of observers, he changed from terrified, to embarrassed, and finally, almost snarling with indignant anger.

Sen Sen no Sen

Plainly he was about to attack. Pre-empting… ‘Smack!!!’ I whipped out a back-fist that snapped his head back. He never even saw it coming. Sen sen no sen: taking the initiative before the attack is launched.

Putting his hand to his mouth, looking at the blood, he said, “What was that for?!”

“You know very well” I said simply.

Deai

Even angrier now, he was formulating another attack plan. I hit him again, harder this time: he staggered, knees wobbling. Deai!

“Stop hitting me!” he cried, frustrated and embarrassed.

He Did not Gave up

“Give it up and go home then!” Suddenly, braking away, he ran to his vehicle, returning a moment later brandishing a large pair of shearing scissors.

Earlier, my client had said, “I wouldn’t put it past him to be carrying a knife or something.”

“Most people who carry knives in these situations”, I replied, “are inclined to, initially, show them off for effect. If he shows me a knife, I’ll take it from him and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine!”

I was calm, relaxed in my Zanshin, trusting that my Fudoshin would produce the appropriate Sen response when my client spoke up from behind me. “Take them off him, Thomas, and stick them where the sun doesn’t shine!”

Suddenly unsure, he looked me in the eye and I smiled. He ran to his car and drove quickly away.

Sen is Crucial

To understand the principals of Sen that best suit you, you must first understand your own nature. However, lest you become predictable in combat, you should train in all aspects of Sen; your Fudoshin will thank you by reacting accordingly.

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