Shotokan myth #1
A good hikite is necessary to make a powerful punch.
By K. Yokota
Hikite is a Japanese word consisting of “hiki” meaning pull or draw and “te”, a hand. When I started karate training in the 60s, my first instruction was given by a senpai and he showed me how to do chudan zuki from a natural stance. I never forgot him, Kato senpai. He was barely five foot tall but was as fast as lightning. (As I remember him doing Enpi). Anyway, Kato senpai said, “Put your left hand out and set your right fist at your right hip. OK that is where you start a punch. Now, draw your left fist to your hips very quickly and at the same time you punch with your right fist, like this.” He showed me the impressive chudan seiken zuki several times in front of me. Though it looked quite simple and easy to imitate, I found the turning of a punching fist was difficult and so was drawing the other fist to the hip (hikite). He explained, “You need to pay more attention to your hikite than to the punching fist. The faster and stronger you draw your hikite, so will your punch become”. As it was my first day at karate training, his statement made a big impact in my head.
A few months later, when I learned a kihon kumite of five attacks (Gohon kumite), I had a problem with hikite again. As we all know after the fifth block the defender needs to throw a counter punch. As a defender, I kept my blocking hand out (rising block, down block, etc) as I delivered a counter punch. My senpai said “No! No! No! You need to do your hikite as you counter punch. Your punch will be much stronger with a strong hikite”. I thought I did a good counter punch but, no hikite was a big mistake that I had to correct. To be honest, it was difficult, not only because of the coordination of two arms but more so because I was afraid to lower my blocking hand from jodan age (rising block) as the opponent’s fist was near my head. I feared that his fist might hit my face but I later found the opponent was nice enough to hold his fist above my head.
I suspect this kind of experience described above is very common for most people when they start karate training. I must emphasize that the correction and change forced by that senpai was the right thing to do and I would have done the same thing in the same situation. In punching with a hikite two arms move to the opposite directions simultaneously. This process must become as natural as two feet moving in harmony while you are walking. If you drag one foot behind and try to walk with only one foot, it will not be a smooth walk and the movement is not natural. Walking mechanism is very natural to us and hikite mechanism can also be natural to karate-ka after a year of practice. After it becomes a part of your natural move, no one thinks too deeply about it and you will have a powerful punch accompanied by a good hikite. Here one has mastered a karate technique. This is great. We are all happy. Now I can almost hear you say, “Well then, what is the problem?”
In this article I am not disputing the importance of hikite. I also agree that it should be taught and stressed to all the kyu students. What I am objecting is that this ingrained concept permeates to the yudansha (black belts). With the increased popularity of tournament kumite where visible hikite is almost mandatory to get a point, no one is questioning. It is now a popular and unquestioned myth.
I began to wonder about this when I became a brown belt as I was exposed to the ryote waga (both hands techniques) like yamazuki in Bassai Dai and morote zuki in Tekki. However, I did not ask my sensei about this as I was only 16 then. Besides, in the competitions we never used or saw those techniques (in 70’s and early 80’s). The scoring hand techniques were almost always jodan oizuki or chudan gyakuzuki (with a good, or even with an over-emphasized hikite). So, it was not a big issue for me during my competition days.
I felt something was missing in shi-ai kumite, so I retired when I was 35. I quickly became serious about the martial arts techniques. You do not see most of the “real” techniques in the controlled environment of shi-ai. To make myself clear, I am not bashing on the tournaments. It has its own place and merits but it is a different world from martial arts. In a self-defense situation, you may not have the freedom of both of your hands and space for a long stance or room for shifting. Besides, you may have multiple opponents. In those situations, you need to throw the first punch or to do the simultaneous (block and counter) techniques. Those are the techniques that are shown in kata and we all know that kata was created from the actual fighting experiences of the past masters. Also, in self-defense situations, a large motion of both arms traveling to opposite directions is not a good idea, just as longer stances and kamae as we see in a tournament are also un-desirable. Making the un-conspicuous movements is a must in a real fight.
As I reached for the higher level of techniques I came to realize that more defined control of your body limbs is required to attain them. This is a concept of Kattai, (pronounced as “Cut, Tie”) which means divided or segmented body parts. This concept is very important and necessary to attain the high level of techniques. It can be understood, maybe, in an analogy of playing beautiful music in an orchestra. Though many different musical instruments play their own tunes and different sounds, as a whole these instruments are playing the same symphony. To produce high-level techniques, our body must be used like an orchestra, but you may say, “Hey we have only four instruments; two arms and two legs. How can I have an orchestra?” You completely underestimated what you have. The instruments you own are all of your muscles (more than 650 in our body), joints (elbows, wrists, ankles, knees, etc) and bones (206 of them all together). You have nearly nine hundred pieces of “instruments” and most of them are mobile (exception may be the bones of the head), so you can see that our body is a big orchestra.
A good example of a punch without hikite is the one-inch punch. Many people may think that the one-inch punch is a super high level skill but most Nidan and higher ranks can master this technique if they are taught but unfortunately many instructors do not know how to do it. Actually, if you have learned how to transfer the power by fine muscles and joints coordination, one can punch with his fist touching a target (zero inch/contact punch). I need to have many pages to explain the mechanism of the one-inch punch and its technique but in this article I will provide only the summary so that I can explain the basic idea. To deliver a definitive power in a one-inch punch (or zero inch punch), one must know the quick shifting of the center of gravity from the rear leg to the front (punching side). This requires the fine movements of the muscles and joints of not only the legs but the hip joints, backbones and some portion of upper body muscle groups. The punching arm is almost totally stretched so there will be almost no arm (including wrist and elbow) movement. Actually, the arm and a fist are only the energy delivery tool (like a lance or a spear). There will be a very fine and well-orchestrated coordination of backbones, the shoulder joints and the muscle groups around them to produce a punch. With the gravity shift with a hip vibration, a contact point, one or two knuckles of a punching fist can deliver a large energy and it produces a significant impact on the target. Actually, the non punching side of arm and shoulder regions must be totally relaxed to generate the power on the punching side because it requires such fine coordination, it is best to call for only the group of muscles that are needed to deliver this punch. There will be no upper body rotation to produce power. Besides, there is no time for hikite motion in the one-inch punch and more importantly a hikite motion is counter productive to this punch.
In morote waza (both hands techniques) obviously there cannot be any hikite. We see many morote waza in kata, which tells us that the past masters believed that hikite was not mandatory to deliver an effective technique. This can apply not only to a punching technique, but also to a blocking technique. If you intend to disable an attacker’s arm with a very strong block, you may add a hikite. However, one must also be able to deliver the effective blocks without depending on hikite or leveraging a draw hand. While you are blocking with one hand, it is very effective to use the other hand to deliver a counter attack simultaneously.
Another important point is that there is no value to hold a fist next to your hip. That hikite is called Shinite (literally dead hand) meaning an empty shell. The hand needs to be up closer to the face to protect it and the head. At the same time, the hand is closer to a target and positioned for a punch. You may be surprised to know that one can throw a punch from a relaxed arm dangling straight down quicker than a punch from a hip position. Holding a fist at a hip forces some upper arm and shoulder region muscles to tense and that will slow the punch. A dangling hand can be whipped out very quickly and it can deliver a great energy if a one-inch punch technique is used at the impact time.
So, I hope you agree that a belief of necessity for hikite to produce a strong punch, block or other technique is a myth. I also hope all instructors and high rank yudansha are training in a way that they can improve the control of various muscles of their bodies (Kattai) so that independent moves by the different limbs become possible. Please remember that a body must become like an orchestra to reach the high level of karate skills. By being able to coordinate and move different parts of the body (instruments) in a skillful manner, our moves become an art just as an orchestra can produce a beautiful music.
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