Kumite (組手) is Japanese and means “grappling hands”. In general it refers to fighting against one or more opponents. Together with Kihon and Kata it belongs to the three foundational elements of Karate. However, karateka apply the techniques they learn during kihon and kata in kumite. Therefore, kihon and kata precede kumite.

In kumite the self-defense and competitive fighting character of Shotokan karate turns into practice. For the purpose of training Shotokan masters have developed several types of kumite. Unexperienced students become exposed to simple forms of kumite. As more they progess in their studies as more they become exposed to complex, uncertain, and challenging fighting and self-defense situations. To make this progress possible and to create the capability to defend themselves Shotokan masters have developed several types of kumite. They all have different characteristics which reflect different teaching and training functions and aims.

Types of Kumite and Their Characteristics

Shotokan karate consists of several different forms of kumite. All focus on a certain and distinct modus operandi in order to teach different aspects of fighting.

The most simple types of kumite belong to the category of yakusoku kumite (約束組み手), which literally refers to “formalized” and prearranged patterns of fighting. Here karate students develop the technical and behavioral foundation for the later free sparring and self-defense applications. It consists of:

The most complex types, which focuses on a free application of Shotokan techniques, comprises:

While gohon kumite possess the lowest degree of freedom for the karateka, jiyu kumite, on the other features free fighting. This is because it takes place as a free fighting situation.

However, we must distinguish between a jissen (実戦), an actual fight like a street fight, and shiai (試合), a sportive tournament. While first happens completely without rules, in the second the athlete is limited by the tournament regulations. For instance, certain dangerous strikes are prohibited from application on tournaments.

Following we also distinguish jissen jiyu kumite from goshin-jutsu. Although, both become applied in real-life conflict situations, they follow different strategies and Shotokan karateka apply different techniques.

Sensei Dormenko shows an advanced kumite combination of Shotokan karate.

Yakusoku Kumite

According to researchers, the exact date of the foundation of yakusoku kumite cannot be determined. Formalized fighting routines we pre-set roles took already place in the practice of Kung Fu and Wushun in ancient China. Therefore, the assumption seems plausible that yakusoku kumite is as old as karate itself.

Gohon kumite

The most simple form of kumite is gohon kumite (5 Step fighting). This form applies defined sequences of movements like attacks and blocks. Students learn to interact with an opponent. Like in kihon the practice of fightingcan also distinguished in a standardized and pre-arranged form and a free form.

Randori and Jiyu Kumite

Randori as Jissen

Shiai: Kumite Competition

Goshin-jutsu and practical Karate

History of Shotokan Kumite

Okinawa karate masters conceptualized karate as a self-defense systems. Real-life fighting situations served them as references. Karate should give its practicioner the skills and power to withstand an attack by an offender. Choki Motobu (1870-1944), one of the most famouse Okinawa karate masters stated:

Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense.

Choki Motobu

Therefore, the founding fathers designed karate according principles of competitive effectiveness and efficiency.

According to research, Hanashiro Chomo mentioned the term kumite in his book Karate Kumite 空手組手 first in 1905.


Yoshitaka Funakoshi and the Development of Kumite

Gichin Funakoshi, however, had a very pacifistic attitude. For him karate and especially Shotokan served the purpose of physical, mental, and ethical education. His son Yoshitaka developed Shotokan into the direction of a comprehensive self-defense system. Yoshitaka also introduced gohon, sanbon, kihon and jiyu ippon as well as jiyu kumite. Yoshitaka himself was very much inspired by kendo techniques and the fighting strategy of kendo. Therefore, he also changed the way to move in it and its general strategical approach. While Okinawa karate prefers high stances and close-range situations, Yoshitaka pushed the style towards lower stances and longer techniques. As a result, Shotokan shares more similarities with fencing. Okinawa karate, on the other hand, comes closer to boxing.

But Yoshitaka´s influence on the way, how Shotokanka fight, goes even further. He also took inspiration from judo. Yoshitaka also introduced sweeping techniques like de ashi barai (出足払), a technique widely unknown in Okinawa karate. How importance of kumite for Yoshitaka becomes clear if one considers that he also colaborated with the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930´s in order to educate soliders in Shotokan. Thus, he had to develop Shotokan into an effective fighting system that was easy to learn and to apply.

The Japanese Army still learns Shotokan karate as self-defence system.

Masatoshi Nakayama Developed Tournament Kumite

Tournament kumite, however, developed rather late in the 1950´s. Especially, Masatoshi Nakayama pushed for the establishment of a tournament fighting discipline. From a present standpoint, it sounds very odd that tournament fighting had to be developed. However, Shotokanka practices randori (free sparring) and goshin-jutsu. Rules and a modus needed to be invented. Masatoshi Nakayama came up with the shobu ippon system. It focuses on one point the contenders have to make (see below). The judges only give the point for a truly devastating but controlled techniques. Neither of the opponents should be seriously injured.

The 1st JKA All Japan Karate Championship took place in Tokyo in October 1957. Since then, other associations have adopted the shobu ippon kumite. However, the World Karate Federation has introduced another style of tournament fighting. Karateka have to fight in an 8-point-system with a full protection gear.

Unfortunately, the rise of tournaments has pushed out aspects of self-defense. Goshin-jutsu has become a seldomly teached part of Shotokan karate. It depends highly on the instructor whether students learn it. In most associations the testings do not require goshin-jutsu.

Further Readings:

Correia, Jonas: Does Shotokan Karate Work in Full Contact Fights? The Shotokan Times 2019.

Ehrenreich, Michael: We Fight the Way We Practice! Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Tribowski, Christian: Ueda Daisuke, Sen no sen, and Ikken Hissatsu. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Tribowski, Christian: “Shobu Ippon is not a game like Sports Karate.” Thomas Prediger about Kumite. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Wiessmann, Florian: The Relation Between Kihon, Kata, and Kumite? Some Answers. The Shotokan Times 2019.

List of Authors:

Dr. Christian Tribowski