From the get-go I need to state that I was never a great ‘Kumite’ exponent, and for that very reason, plus participating in instructor training sessions I learned the theories and tools that assisted me along my journey. I grew up in the ‘blood and guts’ era of karate where pads were forbidden (other than a groin guard), and ‘control’ (of sorts) was expected. Contact was quite heavy, there were no mats, just hard floors, and falling victim to ‘ashi barai’ not only lost you the fight but often hurt. Blood injuries were usually only awarded a penalty ‘Chui’, and we were expected to just get on with it. Sometimes I would hear ‘it is better to get disqualified than lose’, not a sporting sentiment, but the reality of the 60s/70s Karate tournament era.

The small treatise below is an attempt at explaining some of the tools and strategies we need to understand.

Within traditional Japanese Budo we use words that relate to both concepts and/or strategy, inter alia, ‘ma-ai’(the interval o distance/gap between objects – either moving closer or further apart),  ‘hyoshi, or ‘ma’‘ (timing), ‘suki’ (a ‘rupture’ or ‘gap’ in the opponents defence or movement),  ‘kyo’ (the opportunity created when a person’s state of mind is off-guard or they are physically unbalanced), and ‘jitsu’ (being ‘focused’ or having concentration, i.e. a maximum state of readiness of both mental and physical conditions). It is worth noting that ‘ma’  間 can relate to timing/rhythm and space/distance. (Co-incidentally, and off subject, this is the second character in Gima Sensei’s name, 儀間. The ‘Gi’ can mean ‘ceremony’ or ‘matter’.

I would recommend reading Takuan Soho’s (1573–1645), The Unfettered Mind. That book, like Go Rin No Sho (Miyamoto Musashi), is a book of advice on swordsmanship (to Yagyu Munenori) and the cultivation of ‘right mind and intention’ in ‘Budo’. 

Following is a quote from Musashi about ‘Hyoshi’ (‘ma’) from (an English translation) of his book on strategy, Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings):

Hyoshi is found in all things, but in the art of the sword, it is impossible to acquire it without training……In the art of the sword, Hyoshi exists in several forms. It is important to learn about concordant Hyoshi, and then about discordant Hyoshi. And it is important among the great and the small, and the slow and the fast Hyoshis, to distinguish the concordant Hyoshi, the Hyoshi of ma (interval of distance), and discordant Hyoshi. The last is essential; if it is missing your sword will not be sure. In combat, knowing the Hyoshi of the adversary, I must utilise a Hyoshi that doesn’t even occur to him, and I will be victorious by bringing forth the Hyoshi of emptiness from the Hyoshi of wisdom.’

These terms relate equally to the both the combative ‘kumite’  and ‘kata’ where they may appear in as the dropping  of ‘zanshin’, weak ‘tachikata’, weak ‘kamae’, or a mistake in timing etc. ‘Kumite’ is of course easier for us to relate to, but we can practice timing using various methods such as playing tennis, hitting the speed bag etc. Within our ‘kata’ we practice ‘waza no kankyu’ (rhythm), i.e., speed or slowness of movement in each technique within the ‘kata’.

Returning to ‘kumite’ we practice various forms of basic sparring (One, three, five semi-free etc.) up to practicing ‘shiai kumite’, often with vigour (the best/only way for some!). ‘Ma-ai’ and ‘hyoshi’ are often the difference between winning and losing. In ‘jissen kumite’ or ‘shinken shobu’ the consequences of failure to use them do not bare thinking about.

My romanticism takes me to the duel on Funa-Jima (now called Ganryu Island) between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro. It is said that the oar Musashi carved (whilst travelling across the water to the island) and wielded in the duel was slightly longer than the known length of Sasaki’s famous ‘nodachi’. Musashi is said to have turned Sasaki’s known advantage of reach against him.  The thin distance/difference between the two weapons favoured Musashi as he knew his weapon was longer than Sasaki’s. Strategy and ‘ma-ai’ united in an instant of time.

(Sasaki Kojiro and Miyamoto Musashi – the duel at Funa-Jima)

This brings me to the subject of will or ‘intent’, which requires skilful use of ‘ma-ai’, ‘hyoshi’,  and ‘suki’.  Firstly, we need to deal with our own will or intention. In order to form it we need to ensure that we are in ‘jitsu’ and not ‘kyo’; and that the formation of our intent does not place us in ‘kyo’ or create that ‘suki’ (gap) the opponent is looking to capitalise upon. This is a skill that needs consideration, understanding, and development.

We need to fully comprehend our full range of technique distance, surrounding our whole-body area, and control our own space (call it a bubble shield, or even of ‘force field’ if you like). We must ensure that our ‘kamae’ , tachikata’, use of ‘unsoku’ etc. creates both our offensive and defensive effective ranges. We should strive to use our ‘ma-ai’ and ‘seme-te’ to control the opponent. This must be effective in the form of attack or pressuring the opponent into making a mistake. In other words, we are the ‘puppeteer’ controlling our opponent’s actions and reactions! Effectively we need to extend our space in order that part of our ‘bubble’ or ‘area’ needs to enter into their ‘area’.

Once we achieve the above, fully comprehending both ‘jitsu’ and ‘ma-ai’, we know that we need to enter the opponent’s space with offensive technique. Some may say we need to pass through the ‘danger zone’ to reach the ‘sweet spot’. This can be within a single motion or using  ‘renzoku kogeki waza (combinations of techniques)’; the necessity is speed, timing, and effectiveness.

We need to understand the use of ‘kake waza’, and ‘oji waza’. We strike when the opponent shows ‘kyo’, (‘kake waza’); or we use ‘sen’ timing as ‘oji waza’ (responding to the opponent’s technique at the moment of their ‘kyo’. We know that it is difficult to defend when focused solely on attack, and that will be a moment that we can exploit. The ‘kyo’ is often created by an overly focused mind – paying the attention to the leaf, and not the tree! 

Consider this quote:

“Preoccupied with a single leaf… you won’t see the tree. Preoccupied with a single tree… you’ll miss the entire forest. Don’t be preoccupied with a single spot. See everything in its entirety… effortlessly. That is what it means to truly “see.” (Takehiko Inoue).

If we understand our body, our distance, and our capabilities and are skilful in the use of ‘ma-ai’ and ‘hyoshi’ we can explore the concept of ‘shikake waza’, that is setting up  the opponent! We can invite them to attack us by making a purposeful ‘suki’ or feint, our use of ‘sen’ must be skilful and well executed (‘sasoi waza’). 

We can use ‘ kuzushi’ such as a sweep or throw (‘ashi barai’ or ‘nage waza’) to physically unbalance the opponent, again putting them into ‘kyo’, or ‘renzoku kogeki waza’ using combinations or continuous attacks to break their mental or physical balance (‘kyo’).

The above may be in the ‘perfect world’ for ‘kumite’ but they must the tools in our toolbox that we need to acquire and know how to utilise.

A skilful opponent will always have a moment of time to adapt and adjust to our attacks. For this reason, alone we need to employ usage of good ‘ma-ai’ and ensure that our ‘ma’ (timing) is efficient in order to achieve successful range/reach.

Many today still talk about the ‘old days’ when Kanazawa, Enoeda, Shirai, Abe, Yahara, Kagawa senseis and so many other played ‘cat and mouse’. To my mind these are perfect examples of the employment of ‘kyo’, suki’, ‘ma-ai’, ‘intent’, ‘sen’ oji waza’, ‘shikake waza’ etc. 

(Howard Hewitt (my Senpai) vs Bill Pitcher, Canadian National Championships. c. 70s/80s)

The matches were akin to ‘cat and mouse’ and a win was often achieved in the blink of an eye. Movements co-ordinated, in and out, back, and forth, stalking, waiting, then the mistake (opportunity) spotted and the Ippon scored! ‘Ma-ai’, ‘kyo’, ‘jitsu’, ‘sen’ and ‘suki’ were the tools of the match, not just ‘waza’, with flailing arms and legs. 

There is reality in that Ippon Shobu ‘Kumite’; a controlled reality, yet the realisation that a devastating technique was being restrained! To me, this is karate as a ‘Budo’ and not a ‘sport’.

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