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Hikite: Karate´s most controversial Topic

The picture shows a Karate group that uses Hikite during their techniques.

Hikite has advanced to Karate’s most controversial topic in the last decade. In this article, we give an overview about the debate and suggest some aspects about the topic that must be illuminated to bring the discussion about the topics further.

By Dr. Christian Tribowski & T.D. McKinnon

What is Hikite?

Hikite (引手) is Japanese for ‘the pulling hand’. It is a foundational aspect for most Karate techniques.

Hikite is a technique utilized in most Japanese forms of martial arts, i.e. Karate, Judo and Jujitsu. The name refers to the hand, which is pulled back, for instance, to the hip during a strike, while the other front-hand strikes, blocks or throws. Both hands travel in opposite directions during the execution of a technique. Therefore, it is not a waza in itself. It is, however, a constitutive and signature basic element of the Shotokan Karate Do style that can be found throughout the whole spectrum of techniques.

Two Schools of Hikite

Two main schools of thought regarding the hikite exist. One stresses the role of the “puling hand” for destabilizing an opponent through grabbing and pulling him. Another school supposes a vital role of the back-hand in generating power.

Hikite for Destabilizing Opponents

The “destabilizing” school claims that hikite is meant for destabilizing opponents by pulling, for instance, limbs, clothing or hair, to assist in a capture, throw or take down. Proponents of this position usually offer two arguments to legitimize their conviction:

  1. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate Do, wrote in his book Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu: “The meaning of the hikite is to grab the enemy’s arm and twist and pull as much as possible in order to break the enemy’s posture”. Therefore, their argument focuses on the purpose Gichin Funakoshi assigned it to the motion in this specific publication.
  2. Hikite poses a disadvantage during a real fight, if it is not used for the destabilizing of the opponent. This argument is, therefore, a definition ex negativo. The prerequisite for the arguments lies in the refusal of the idea of “power generation” through pulling the hand. If power generation is not possible and thus cannot be the purpose of hikite (negative) then the destabilization of opponents is the only valid application. Because a passive pulled back hand could serve a better purpose as a cover for the face, for instance.

This position is especially prominent among practical oriented karateka. They refuse classical conceptions of the power generation approach and stress instead the direct functional relevance of the motion for self-defense. Thus, they also refuse the pulling of the hand with the argument that it creates “bad habit”. Karate students should learn straight from the beginning a defense-oriented way of punching. To teach them a disadvantageous before first and then to teach them how to behave in real fight situations deem some commentators as inefficient.

Opponents of this position argue that the once assigned purpose or function of a technique can evolve. Over time more aspects become visible. To rely only on Gichin Funakoshis intention for the pulling hand blocks out other possible functions and applications.

They also criticize the misinterpretation of power generation by this group. In their opinion the pulling of the hand does not serve to generate additional power beyond the actual capacity of the karateka. Its major function lies in its power saving and speed generating aspect (see below).

Hikite for Power Generation

Another school, however, focuses on the technical aspect of hikite related to power generation. It argues that the body works around an imagined central pivot. When arms and hands work in unison together the pulling hand serves as counterbalance. From here proponents of this position have developed two physical concepts to describe how the pulling of the hand generates power:

  1. Slingshot-effect“: This concepts assumes that the hikite-hand becomes loaded due to muscular and fascia tension when it is pulled back. Like a slingshot the hand can be released and the pre-loaded energy creates a forward momentum of the arm. This effects, therefore, focuses on the pretension of muscles through pulling the hand. The front hand, which pulls back, supports the forward motion of the pulling-hand by transmitting rotational energy over the center axes.
  2. “Whip-lash-effect”: In a slightly different direction argues the concept of the “whip-lash-effect”. Here hikite generates the effect of a stabilizing anchor for the forward moving hand. When both hands come to a hold the backhand serves to tension-up the upper body. So, the forward energy can be fully transmitted by the front fist. However, the punching arm stays relaxed and works like a “whip”, while the hikite hand works like the anchor of the whip. Similar concepts are known in other martial arts like Kung Fu and Wing Tsung.

This position has the highest prominence among orthodox “traditional” karateka. Proponents of this position often argue that utilizing one of the two above mentioned effects makes it possible to punch with less energy but creating the same power and even more speed. Because the pretension within the muscles can be set free fully relaxed. Thus, karateka can solely focus on quickness. The whip-lash-effect makes it possible to transmit power without spending much forward energy.

In the recent years, this concept has caused some critic. Practical karateka doubt that the pulling hand generates the supposed physical effects. Some see in a counter motion a hindering factor for the transmission of energy. A backwards motion blocks, in this understanding, the free flow of energy to the front. They also refer to examinations with other martial artist like boxers who do not apply hikite. Their punching power is allegedly equal or higher as the one of karateka. Thus, hikite can be spared and the backhand used for defense purposes.

Rick Hotton showing Hikite

Conclusion and Research Questions

Both concepts have proponents and opponents today. However, both position define the extreme polls of a spectrum. Especially when it come to kumite many karateka make flexible use of hikite. In kihon and kata most karateka deem the pulling of the hand as mandatory.

Further research should illuminate the physical effects of the pulling hand.

  • Does it generate or safe energy?
  • Is it an effective means for pre-loading of muscles?
  • Which effects does it have on speed?
  • Does it support kime?

Another research direction, which appears to be necessary to tackles, refers to the educational effects of kime. While some critics deem it as counterproductive to teach students hikite, others stress its relevance for the development of kime. Students only learn kime through the execution of “exaggerated” motions. Later, when they have a better control over their body and know to manage tension and relaxation the pulling of the hand becomes less important. This hypothesis has not been examined under scientific conditions but seems worth to study.

The conceptual expectation of the outcome of hikite has probably a effect on the actual execution of hikite itself. Thus, it might have several effects and purposes at the same time. The karakteka must decide how to perceive and deal with hikite.

References

Abernathy, Iain 2019: The TRUE role of Hiki-Te. In: Iain Abernathy. The Practical Application of Karate, Jan 3, 2019.

Enkamp, Jesse 2012: 3 Widespread Misconceptions of Modern Karate (That You Need to Know Today)! In: KaratebyJesse.com.

Funakoshi, Gichin 1996 (1925): Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu, Tokyo.

McKinnon, Thomas 2019: Hikite: More than just the pulling hand. In: The Shotokan Times, July 2, 2019.

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Hikite: More than just the pulling hand

Addison and Eleanor with a strong focus on Hikite!

Hikite has been criticized in the last few years to be ineffective and actually solely for the purpose of pulling an opponent. I will show in this article its actually bio-mechanical purpose as a counter-motion for the creation of speed and power. By Thomas D. McKinnon

The Hikite Critics

I have heard many so called experts criticizing the hikite as a pointless exercise. It makes no sense, they say, that pulling one hand in the opposite direction, to the one that is punching, will generate power to the punching hand. They usually go on to say that the original purpose of hikite is easily seen in the older, Okinawan forms of karate. They operated at a closer range between the attacker and the defender. Karate was originally, purely for self-defense. It was used when attacked by an adversary, and not for sport, where two karateka are facing off.

So, in those experts’ opinion, the hikite – originally meant for destabilising the opponent, grabbing limbs, clothing or hair, to assist in a throw or takedown – is a waste of time unless used for those reasons. In fact the free hand would be put to better use as a cover, for the face say, while the opposite hand is punching et cetera.

A young Hirokazu Kanazawa demonstrates how a Choku Zuki with a string Hikite has to look like.
A young Hirokazu Kanazawa demonstrates how a Choku Zuki with a string Hikite has to look like.

What is Hikite about?

Hikite is another of those Japanese terms that means more than it says. Hikite: the pulling hand. Firstly, the hand that is the counter-piece of any given hand technique is not just pulled back per se. But we’ll get back to that. The difference between karate and let’s say boxing is simple. Karate doesn’t use a shoulder and or a lean in or a swing to generate power in the technique. Power generated in that manner makes the weight of the initiator a major part of that power generation. The (switched on) Shotokan karateka uses the rotation around the central pivot, or Hara (the core), of the body. Utilising the whole body, not just the side that is punching, the karateka is in fact employing more mass.

Furthermore, the slingshot effect generates more explosive speed. And, as everyone knows, this is instrumental in both power output and payload delivery: Force = Mass x Velocity (Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion). In the David and Goliath scenario: do you think that David would have slain Goliath if he’d simply thrown the stone?

Counter Pivot Around the Core for Maximum Speed and Power

I stated in that last paragraph that the hikite is not pulled back per se. Let me clarify. The hikite is used to counter pivot the energy from one side of the body to the other via the central pivotal core. Thus, pulling the opposite side of the body not back but, spiraling through the core adding more mass. Therefore it generates more speed and lends more power to the strike. This works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home. Force = Mass x Velocity. This action does not necessarily mean that the hikite hand ends up at the hip. However, when teaching this power transference, it is generally thought easier, initially at least, to demonstrate the action this way.

Thomas D. McKinnon (author): He puts a lot of emphasize on Hikite. It "works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home."
Thomas D. McKinnon (author): He puts a lot of emphasize on Hikite. It “works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home.”

I stated in that last paragraph that the hikite is not pulled back per se. Let me clarify. The hikite is used to counter pivot the energy from one side of the body to the other via the central pivotal core. Thus, pulling the opposite side of the body not back but, spiraling through the core adding more mass. Therefore it generates more speed and lends more power to the strike. This works in a similar way like the slingshot around the moon that brought Apollo 13 safely home. Force = Mass x Velocity. This action does not necessarily mean that the hikite hand ends up at the hip. However, when teaching this power transference, it is generally thought easier, initially at least, to demonstrate the action this way.

What The Experts get Wrong

I do not disagree in regard to those other uses for the hikite. However, in my humble opinion, those so called experts don’t see the whole concept. They totally miss or misunderstand, the other side of the equation. To talk about pulling and pushing is somewhat redundant. Pulling one hand back is not going to power up the pushing or punching side… that’s obvious. That is where most of the power generation naysayers get their nickers in a twist. At the risk of repeating myself: the hikite is not pulling back, it is pulling the opposite side of the body into the equation by powering it through the central pivot or center axis. This action enables the karateka to utilise the power of the entire body. And not just the side that is delivering the strike.

Hikite Creates Physical Force

There is an equation for this power generation. Centripetal force (defined as, “The component of force acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or axis of rotation”) is equal and opposite to the Centrifugal force. Centrifugal force (defined as, “The force, equal and opposite to the Centripetal force, drawing a rotating body away from the center of rotation, caused by the inertia of the body.”) then adds to the Mass and the Velocity already in motion. Again, we have a measurable: Force = Mass x Velocity.

Addison is 12 years of age, and the Tasmanian State Champion in both kata and kumite in her age category; plus, she is part of the National Australian Squad.  Eleanor is 17 years of age, the Tasmanian State Champion in kata and kumite in her age category, also runner-up in the Ladies Open, and she too is part of the Australian National Squad. Both focus a lot on Hikite!
Our Two young ladies of the opener picture: Addison is 12 years of age, and the Tasmanian State Champion in both kata and kumite in her age category; plus, she is part of the National Australian Squad.  Eleanor is 17 years of age, the Tasmanian State Champion in kata and kumite in her age category, also runner-up in the Ladies Open, and she too is part of the Australian National Squad. Both have a strong focus on Hikite!

All the other possible constituents of the hikite – destabilising the opponent, grabbing, pulling and assisting a throw or takedown et cetera – actually become even more relevant. Power generation, on its own, is a very real component of hikite. However, in addition, the supplementary power element makes all the other mechanisms of hikite even more practicable.

Hikite: more than just the pulling hand.

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Power and Speed in Karate: Use Your Shoulder Blade

Do you want more power and speed in your karate? Focus in your kihon more on utilizing your shoulder blades and you will gain it. Our friends from WaKu Karate in Tokyo allowed us to share another of their tutorial videos which explains and shows the relationship between shoulder blades and your performance. What do you think? Do they use there shoulder blades correctly?