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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).

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.

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:

  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.

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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Karate Combat: Why I Compete in it!

Jonas during his debute fight in Karate Combat.

Karate Combat has been criticized by many traditional karateka and even The Shotokan Times. However, I have good reasons to compete in it! By Jonas Correia

Last year we were introduced to a professional Karate league where renowned semi-contact karate athletes fought in full contact rules in a competition quite different from what we are used to see. The peculiarity of the event, known as Karate Combat, began with the format of the competition area which became known as “The Pit” and all the production and climate of the 80’s martial arts movies that still inspire martial artists today.

With all the professionalism of a big event, it did not take long to Karate Combat gain the visibility it deserved. You can find the previous fights an Karate Combat.

The event, divided the opinion of Karate practitioners. Some said that it was no longer Karate. Others said that this would be the watershed to rescue the name of Karate that find itself in the darkness.

Karate Has Lost Its Efficiency

omThat karate has lost much of its efficiency due to the constant rules limiting combativeness is not something new. But we know that competition is part of the development of a fighter, too. Even if it is in points rules. However, what would have been wrong in the creation of a full contact rule which had been carefully planned so that art would not be miss-characterized? If we observe well, the absence of knee techniques, elbows, kicks in the thigh and uppercut shows how much the organizers have tried to maintain fidelity to the competitive characteristics of the art, or at least the common rules which we are accustomed to and not letting the event become another Kickboxing event or mma event.

Watching all this, I was enchanted by the possibility of entering the event. In less than an hour that I had discovered about KC on Facebook, I filled the inbox of Karate Combat with my emails to show my interest.

Jonas first entrance in the Karate Combat arena.

I needed to fight there. But why? Some even asked me why, but I honestly can not quite understand the reason.

Karate Combat Is a New Challenge

If there is something that every martial arts practitioner that competes a lot have in common, is the taste for new challenges. Besides this factor which only a deep Freudian explanation would make the reader understand, I thought to myself, how would I not let myself participate in an event which had already entered into the contemporary history of karate? Why not give myself the chance to be part of this important chapter?

I had done 3 Chinese Kickboxing fights (Sanshou / Sanda) in 2007. One of the Amador mma in 2009, and had competed countless times in karate tournaments. It was time for something else before my routine of father of 4 children at my 33’s made my competitive career even more difficult. I thought that was my last chance to do something really meaningful to myself before ending (or slowing down) my competitive career in karate.

Karate Combat Requires Different Training Than Shobu Ippon

When there was the fourth Combat Karate event in New York (30 minutes away from where I live) I found a way to be around and see how it worked. This also gave me the opportunity to meet several people at the event. It was there that I was able to demonstrate my interest. The following month I was invited to fight. I had 3 months to prepare myself.

Full contact rule training is very different from traditional karate training. Since there will be no stop for point marking and the fight will continue after a well-executed technique, high intensity training based on mma training, and other contact sports became necessary. Three months seemed not to be enough time for this. Besides I have scheduled a trip to train at JKA’s Hombu Dojo for a week.

Jonas did fight in the WUKF World Championships. Thus, he fights in traditional formats and Karate Combat.
Jonas did fight in the WUKF World Championships in Slovakia this year. Thus, he fights in traditional formats and Karate Combat.

My First Fight in the “Pit”

The week of the event had arrived. We had to be in Hollywood a week before to do a series of medical examinations among other things required for the marketing and advertising of the event.

While all the fighters were already in position and keeping the form together with their coaches, I did not have the same luck. My coach could only come one day before the fight.

The day of the event arrived. I was confident. And I won the victory over my opponent Luiz Diogo from Portugal. However, I wasn’t 100% satisfied with my performance for particular reasons.

The feeling of ending a contact fight is very good, especially with a positive result. But the truth is that the adrenaline makes you to miss the fight. If someone asked me if I would fight again at that moment, I would certainly say yes.

Karate Combat Is Worth the Experience

I believe that all karatekas should experience full contact fights regardless of their idea of what karate should be. The truth is that in a full contact match, it is about You against your Lungs! Your opponent is just a detail.

In a real combat, often the breath outweighs the technique and many people overlook this factor of extreme importance. For those who believe in the effectiveness of karate as an art of self-defense, they must experience something of this kind in their life. Even though KC is a competition of limited rules, full contact rules teaches a lot about fighting under pressure.

Makiwara and Ikken Hisatsu as Foundation for Strong Karate

If you believe that Karate is enough, I advise you then, to hit makiwara every single day. I truly believe and practice the idea of Ikken Hisatsu. If you ever need to use your karate in real combat and do not have enough breath, be precise and straightforward. Because if you need to take more than 5 minutes to solve a real combat situation, it will be very difficult to succeed.

Jonas succeded in his debute fight in Karate Combat.

The truth is that a martial artist should not be close minded to just one idea. I believe that the practitioner must faithfully follow one path which he believes. However, he must be ready not to be surprised. Experiencing something different will not cause you to discredit what you have practiced. But it may help you to understand it better.

The Necessity of Karate Combat for Traditional Karate

I hope Karate Combat has come to stay. Not every karateka needs the KC, but Karate needed such an event.

Even though it does not please everyone, Karate Combat came at an opportune moment. Our art falls into oblivion of a world that has only eyes for mma, Muay Thai, Kickboxing and so on.

When was the last time you filled your classes with adult only? Why is karate nowadays limited or attracted only to children?

We can not wait for another Lyoto Machida to soften the wounded ego.

The truth hurts, but Karate has lost a lot of credibility as self-defense.

Save Karate Combat and / or any other attempt to do something bolder.

With your permission, I’m going to hit my makiwara! Oss!

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Karate Combat and the Commercialization of Karate

Karate Combat promotes itself as the only full contact karate league world wide. This claim made us curious and we had a closer look. What we found was commercialization in the first place. A commentary by Dr. Christian Tribowski

If some of you have thought that Karate in general has become very commercialized in the past two decades, you might be surprised by the latest step on the capitalistic ladder. Karate Combat, a full contact Karate League, was launched this year.

Format of Karate Combat

It follows a pretty simple format: Two Karateka fight in a pit-like ring for a few minutes. The referee does not stop the fight: if one of the opponents scores a point – the fight goes on. At this point, it clearly distinguishes itself from Shobu Ippon kumite. Even on the ground the fighters can attack each other for five seconds. The rules prohibit hooks and elbow strikes. Gloves  are mandatory. The opponents should use long tsukis and keris like in Shobu Ippon kumite.

What was most astonishing for me about Karate Combat was the excessive and conspicuous presentation of status and economic power. Big cars, incredible venues like the Acropolis, naked bodies, and apparently an exclusive audience are part of the production. The main sponsor, as you can see on the ground of the pit, is Bitcoin. To get an own impression have a look at their YouTube channel.

Karate Combat as Retro-Futuristic Spectacular

Vice Sports called it “retro-futuristic” because it shares similarities with some 80´s martial arts movies. This similarities led me to the following association: The general setting and aesthetics of the scenery reminded me about the movie Lionheart with Jean-Claude van Damme. The movie depicts a wealthy upper-class that organizes illegal bare-knuckle fights for their entertainment in Los Angeles. JCVD takes part in these fights to raise money to help his brothers family.

Focus on Monetization

Karate Combat, on the other hand, follows the law and is not a fight to death. Although, the similarities with Lionheart cannot be overlooked it shares more traits with the modern boxing industry. Like professional boxing it focuses on entertainment and commerce. Bitcoin as the main sponsor must have paid a considerable amount of money, because Karate Combat streams the fights on the internet for free. The “domain name Karate.com, which we can only imagine costs more than all the fighter’s purses combined”, as Vice Sports noted, must also been paid. A non-profit could not effort this production. In addition, the website lists a variety of partner companies like amazon prime, YouTube, Dailymotion etc. Hence, the commercialization of Karate has gone a tremendous step further.

Shotokan Serves a Different Purpose than Karate Combat

Everybody is free to watch and visit Karate Combat events. However, everybody should be aware that making money is not the true value of Karate in general and Shotokan. To put the Do into practices it is. While money serves as a necessary means in any professionalized system, even in Karate, e.g. professional instructors must make a living and associations need money to develop professional structures, the maximization of profits as a major purpose contradicts with the values of Shotokan Karate Do.

Shotokan cultivates humility, solidarity, perfection of one’s character, truth, respect for others and etiquette, endeavor, and impetuous courage in the first place. Everybody who puts money and entertainment in the center of their Karate loses the positive outcomes of this life-long journey: mental freedom and balance, empowerment, humility, enlightenment, empathy, friendship, a sense of belonging, solidarity. Karate Combat, instead, encourages the satisfaction of egoistic short-term goals like immediate consumption and spectacular.

The Shotokan Karate Do community, thus, should work harder than ever before to stress and foster the traditional values and positive effects Shotokan has on individuals and societies.

What do you think? Please comment below the article and discuss with our author.

Note: The boxing ring picture of this article was shoot by Joel Muniz on Unsplash.