Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Myth of Empty Hand Combat

The Myth of Empty Hand Fighting

“The first effort of human technology was probably weapon-making.  History and travel tell us of no race so rude as to lack artificial means of offense and defense”   Sir Richard Burton

Mortal combat has been fought with weapons since Homo erectus roamed the African Plains, some 1.8 million years ago.  Initially this involved using rocks, clubs, sharpened sticks and flint knives until the bow and arrow and spear were developed. More importantly though is the invention of projectile weapons (sling, bow and arrow, javelin,) allowed man to kill from a distance and gave him a measure of safety previously unknown when using shock weapons (knife, club, sword). Furthermore, with the development of firearms the distance man could kill from and his ability to do so increased dramatically. [i]

In spite of our natural propensity for using weapons there is in karate a widely held belief that empty-handed strategies will always prevail against an armed assailant. Similarly the myth of empty- handed combat is a long standing one and there are no ends to what people will do to advance it. Death touches and pressure point knockouts are commonly found, though their use in full-contact fighting is non-existent.  Kobudo practitioners will use sais and nunchakus against shotguns to illustrate their system’s effectiveness while karate instructors often portray armed assailants as buffoons barely capable of putting one foot in front of another. Sadly in each and every case myth takes precedence over reality, sometimes with deadly consequences. [ii]

The origin of karate’s empty-hand myth originated with Basil Hall’s visit to Okinawa during the early 19th century. Hall, an English sea captain, was intrigued by the Okinawans and made several noteworthy observations about their hospitality, culture and country. His most notable being that the Okinawans possessed no arms, no army and no means of defending themselves.

On his homeward journey Hall’s ship docked briefly at St. Helena, the island Napoleon was exiled on. There Hall was granted a visit with the deposed emperor, during which he spoke of a kingdom that had no arms and practiced no war. Napoleon however, remained unconvinced and as Hall later wrote: “Several circumstances…respecting the Loo-Choo [Okinawan] people surprised even him a good deal; and I had the satisfaction of seeing him more than once completely perplexed, and unable to account for the phenomena which I related.  Nothing struck him so much as their having no arms.  ‘Point d’ armes!’ he exclaimed;…”Mais, sans armes, comment se bat-on?’

“I could only reply, that as far as we had been able to discover, they had never had any war, but remained in a state of internal and external peace. ‘No wars!’ cried he, with a scornful and incredulous expression, as if the existence of any people under the sun without wars was a monstrous anomaly.” (Kerr, Okinawa History of an Island People, p. 258-259) As with other explorers Hall’s observation was based on insufficient knowledge, but the myth he perpetuated remains to this day.

The 17th century is considered an age when sword to sword combat flourished, yet in reality firearms dominated most of the world’s battlefields at this time. This was especially so considering the development of tactics which allowed drilled units to maintain a consistent rate of fire, thereby increasing the weapon’s effectiveness. With these developments, the distance at which combat was fought increased, and the frequency at which close quarters combat occurred decreased. However there was another advantage firearms offered and that was training.  Whereas it normally took three to five years preparation to be skilled enough to fight on the battlefield with sword and spear, bow and arrow, anyone could be taught to load and fire an Arquebus within a few weeks, if not days.

           Feudal Japanese armies were in many ways no different than their European counterparts and when the Satsuma invaded Okinawa they quickly swept aside all resistance because the invading force was equipped with firearms. As Morio Higaonna wrote, “On April 1, the Satsuma army separated into two forces.  One, led by Kabayama, proceeded to the port of Yomitan from which they then attacked and burned Urasoe Castle and Ryufukuji Temple. They advanced as far as Shuri Castle, the residence of the king.  Kabayama’s army was met at the bridge of Shuri Castle by defiant islanders armed with nothing more than sticks and bamboo spears.  The Satsuma force of between 1,000 and 1,500 men, armed with guns, advanced onto the bridge.  Bullets from their guns fell like rain and the islanders were forced to retreat into the castle” (Higaonna, The History of Karate, 3).

 The Satsuma’s use of firearms allowed them to unleash a devastating barrage on the Okinawans, which produced horrendous effects, physically and psychologically. And, as in Europe where the sword and spear were becoming obsolete, on Okinawa traditionally armed warriors were defeated by soldiers with guns. Hence, Okinawan styles of fighting became suitable only for personal defense due to innovations in weapons technology.

For almost 300 years after the Satsuma invasion the Okinawans developed their native fighting arts in secrecy until karate was imported to Japan. Once there it was practiced as a sport, a means of self-defense and as moving meditation. However despite karate’s enormous popularity it was of little use on the battlefield because firearms, automatic weapons and artillery had rendered the likelihood of empty- hand combat almost impossible.

When karate was transmitted to the United States after World War II, Americans whole heartedly embraced the fighting art though few questioned its historical veracity. Magazines, movies and masters all promoted the superiority of empty-hand fighting in a culture long accustomed to firearms, though oddly enough it was Chojun Miyagi who summed up karate’s role in the modern world best when he stated, “Our intention is to develop a sound and healthy body so that, in the event we are attacked unexpectedly, we are able to defend ourselves effectively.  That is to say, the fundamental principle of karate is to be able to defeat an assailant using solely our natural weapons-our bodies.

However, in situations in which an aggressor possesses superior strength or wields a weapon, we must use, in conjunction with our natural weapons, whatever weapon we may find at hand.” (Higaonna, History of Karate, 82)
 As a sport, a means of physical fitness, meditation and cultural artifact karate holds many possibilities, but as a fighting art it is extremely limited in a culture where firearms’ violence is commonplace. Consequently it is important for karate-ka to understand the difference between myth and fact and know that the instinct which originally drove us to use weapons is alive and well today.  Or in layman’s terms, two hours of firearms’ training negates twenty years of karate with the squeeze of a trigger.

[i] “On the negative side, the maximum range of shock weapons is seldom greater than a couple of meters.  Long lances or pikes can double this reach, but only at the expense of accuracy, mobility, and impact.  Moreover, these very short ranges create sever psychological and social difficulties that render shock weapons the choice among only the more severely disciplined armies of high chiefdoms and states.  These weapons are very dangerous to an opponent, but they put their wielder at great risk.  To employ them against a comparably armed opponent, a warrior must close to a distance where both parties are in maximum danger of being killed or terribly wounded.  And more important, to reach this closure the warrior must pass through the killing zone of the enemy’s fire weapons, with each step forward increasing their accuracy and their impact force.  It is no accident that the use of body armor is highly correlated with the use of shock weapons, since the former can dramatically decrease the risk of injury from missiles and can ameliorate those from close combat.  Many groups equipped themselves with shock weapons but employed them only to dispatch fleeing or captured foes after these had been routed.”  Lawrence H. Keeley. War Before Civilization, p. 49-50.
[ii] One of the more bizarre incidents involving karate and firearms that I have witnessed was while visiting an Iaido school. During the course of the evening the school’s instructor repeatedly demonstrated his ability to draw and cut an assailant before they pulled the pistol’s trigger. This delusion was based on the assumption that the assailant would hold their pistol against the instructor’s back, head or neck as he stood in a ready stance with the katana. Never mind that in daily life he wouldn’t have the sword, or that if confronted by a police officer the first thing the officer would demand after drawing their pistol at a safe distance is that the katana be thrown to the ground. “What happens if the assailant draws the pistol at a distance?” I asked. “I charge and cut” he answered. “My Kiai will scare them and buy me time to cover the distance between us.”  Although dangerous, ignorance is a blissful state of mind.


  1. Hi Good write-up. Maybe one day we can talk on Karate, its history, development et al.