Karate Uke, Blocks, and other Applications

What do we mean by block?

My old concise Oxford Dictionary offers 18 different meanings for ‘block’ as a noun and 6 for it as a verb, a number of which seem suited to the context in which the term is used in the martial arts:

  • an obstruction; anything preventing progress or normal working,
  • a blocking action,
  • put obstacles in the way of,
  • restrict the use of,
  • intercept with one’s body (American football).

It’s not a bad term, but one I suggest is still more limiting than the actual karate uke techniques themselves.

In a lot of martial arts that use Japanese language terminology when two people train together they may be referred to as Tori, the person that successfully ‘does’ the technique, and Uke, the person that receives the technique. For at least the last fourteen years I have used the word ‘receiver’ to translate the word ‘uke’ when it refers to a technique (such as Age Uke, Ude Uke, Uchi Uke) as I feel it allows for the broad range of things that the movements can be than the more commonly used term ‘block’.

When is an uke technique not an uke technique?

Most uke techniques are made up of a number of gross motor movements, often with some fine motor additions at the end. The opinion of what is and what isn’t an uke technique will vary from person to person. How much of the movement, and what part of the movement, has to be done before we can say “I used this uke technique”?

As an example, here are descriptions of two different uke techniques. I recognise that they will be taught differently from style to style and from association to association (and my version may well be viewed as heretical or incorrect by some), but I will describe them as I do them if I were doing Shotokan Karate kihon as Shotokan is one of the karate styles that I teach.

Right Arm Age Uke: the left arm extends palm open and down to the front at head height with the right hand fist closed palm up at the hip. The right hand (fist closed and palm facing upwards) moves diagonally across the body from right to left (outside to inside) to approximately shoulder height, supported by a partial turn of the right hip forward. The right arm then moves a small amount from the inside to the outside while continuing to push upwards, the forearm rotating so that the back of the hand now faces the head and the uppermost surface of the forearm is clear of the top of the head. The elbow of the right arm is lower than the fist and the angle of the forearm is diagonal rather than horizontal. This final movement is supported by a further turn of the right hip forward of the left. The hips turn fluidly throughout the movement and the movement of the right arm should be fluid throughout. As the right arm moves the left hand retracts sharply to the hip, closing to a fist and rotating to a palm up position. This can be done with supporting stepping motions.

Right Arm Ude Uke: the left arm extends palm open and down to the front at head height and the right arm is pulled back level with the head, its elbow at approximately shoulder height with the forearm at a vertical right angle to the upper arm and rotated so that the closed right fist faces away from the head. The right forearm then rotates so that the palm of the closed fist faces forwards and the right elbow drops down and forwards sweeping across the body from the outside towards the inside, supported by the right hip orientating forwards of the left. As the right arm reaches its end point (which would have been the centerline of the chest had the hips not turned) the forearm rotates so that the palm of the closed fist faces towards the practitioner. As the right arm moves the left hand retracts sharply to the hip, closing to a fist and rotating to a palm up position. This can be done with supporting stepping motions.

In basic training and in kata the prior extension of the ‘non blocking’ arm is common to the majority of uke techniques. As such if I just do that I would not describe myself as having done an uke technique, I see it as a setup movement, albeit a very important one in a lot of practical applications (as is its retraction). From a personal standpoint if I just do the diagonal upwards movement in one direction described in my version of Age Uke, whether the outside to inside part or the inside to outside reversal, I would not say “I have done Age Uke”, but if I did both I would describe it as an Age Uke. In similar vein although many years ago I was taught in Jiyu Kumite to move and rotate my arm a few inches from its kamae position from the outside to the inside and that movement was also ‘Ude Uke’, for me (and this is an opinion not a fact) it does not utilise enough of the movement to go by that name and I see it purely as a closed hand parry. As such I wouldn’t call an open or closed handed high outside to inside parry Gedan Barai, though if it is then followed by the arm sliding along and across the parried limb to strike the attacker with a hammerfist I would. If the same following outward movement went upwards rather than downwards then I would not be adverse to describing it as an Age Uke.

Flinching, parrying, swatting, patting, diverting and slipping and uke techniques

There are a number of different reactions we make to attacks. The tongue in cheek descriptor I use for the different umbrella aspects that govern the actions or reactions of the ‘defender’ is the FEAR of the defender: their focus, experience, attitude and reaction time – all measured or competing against the EASE of the attack (environment, attitude, speed and entry angle). In broad terms though what we do in response to an attack will depend upon whether or when we see it, how long we have to react to it and how much experience we have dealing with it along with what we’ve trained to do.

The fastest most natural proactive things we can do in response to an attack we have not pre-empted are simple gross motor actions. Patting or parrying from one side to the other, pushing up or swatting down, or slipping straight under. These are all natural movements that most people will do if they have enough time unless confused by being specifically told to do something else. Where training comes in is that a trained person will

  • spot the telegraphs of the attack sooner and begin to make appropriate movements,
  • have improved reaction time from regular exposure to the stimuli,
  • have superior supporting biomechanics to ensure a greater likelihood of success,
  • have a superior ability to follow (or convert) their swat/parry/push/pat/slip with an appropriate ‘shutting down’ movement or combination.

Depending on the style (and the student) there are often points in training (particularly in the first few years) where an untrained person will avoid being struck with greater success and ease than a trained person because they are carrying less mental baggage about what they should be doing in support of the movement and that is particularly true if a person is trying to utilise a ‘complete’ uke technique in the manner I described above (with Age Uke and Ude Uke as examples) against an unpredictable attack at speed.

While flinching is a natural movement (and can to a degree biomechanically overlap with some of the examples given above) it differs from them in that it is an unconscious reflexive response. We all flinch, but we do so unconsciously when we do not have time to access a conscious response to protect ourselves. How we flinch will depend on how far away the stimuli is when we spot it, how fast it is, where it is headed, and the position of our hands and arms at the time. If you spot a punch heading towards your face at the last minute and your hands are down by your waist, they may begin to come up as if to cover the head, and the spinal reflex will kick in turning you down and away, and the face will scrunch and the eyes shut, but you will still get hit. If your hands were already in front of your face then your arms would probably have covered the head and you wouldn’t have been hit. If there were more time the arms (or the nearest arm) would have extended to push the threat away. If there were more time than that then you would most likely have accessed a conscious response and your unconscious brain would not have taken over. We cannot modify the flinch. We can reduce its likelihood through training and learning to spot and act on telegraphs earlier. We can also (if we’re sensible) practice recovering from flinch-like positions so that if we do flinch we are immediately able to respond rather than fall victim to follow up attacks.

Karate uke and applications

Uke can be used and trained for a number of different purposes, some of which are more effective in different environments and under different degrees of pressure than others. So far as I’m concerned whether an application of an uke is right or wrong comes down to the Ronseal test: does it do what it says on the tin?

Stepping backwards with a full Age Uke and Ude Uke (as described above) against a prearranged long-range straight punching torso or chin attack at speed works. I can’t question that, I’ve seen it done hundreds of times and I’ve done it hundreds of times. I’ve not seen it work in other environments, and I’ve seen it fail in other environments, but that doesn’t matter if that’s not your training intention. If you can reliably apply it to do what you want it to do then it passes the Ronseal test for you.

Uke make up the majority of karate kata techniques. It is my opinion (and this isn’t a new view by any means, it has been common in the karate world for a very long time) that they were not designed to be used against karate (or other MA) attacks in the manner in which they are generally trained in a number of karate systems, though that does not detract from their ability in such to bestow a number of positive combative and fitness benefits in the process.

I view uke techniques as ‘receiver’ techniques, they receive the other person’s attack. This means that they deflect, they intercept, they strike (potentially pre-emptively), they unbalance, they manipulate, they trap and they can even control.

In his ten precepts Anko Itosu wrote of Karate as being designed to defend oneself against a ruffian rather than engaging in challenge matches. As such in my own training I have chosen to orientate my study and application of uke techniques towards habitual acts of violence (HAOV). The recreation of HAOV in training and in the simulation of force on force individual and multiple person realistic self defence scenarios is something for which I am probably better known internationally than my karate articles and books. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a number of highly experienced martial artists from a broad range of martial arts disciplines as well as LEOs, military and security personnel, watch or participate in the training that I have run in this regard and endorse it. The applications I teach for uke techniques stem from the observations of what happens (and what works) in this form of training in addition to over a decade of the study of violent crime and associated supporting disciplines. Photographs for clarity of explanation in books and articles will illustrate my applications in a very static form (because they are for people learning the drills), but they are designed to be trained in the manner I describe here with progressive resistance, speed and unpredictability. Ultimately I believe in their effectiveness for self defence and would like to see those who learn them try them in situations such as illustrated in my training in the following video.

 

I’ve previously discussed the case for elements of grappling in karate in Volume Two of the Pinan Flow System and I know that the conclusions I drew there are not unique. Karate is not purely a striking approach, nor is it purely a grappling approach, it is an approach that is orientated predominantly towards striking and striking is its preferred approach. To do this effectively against HAOV by necessity it contains techniques that are designed to navigate and extricate from the common ‘non percussive’ elements of fighting (such as grabbing and pulling, holding, barging, tackling attempted leg take downs etc) in order to strike, flee or control. In self defence situations the vast majority of conflict occurs at extremely close range and grabbing, clinching, pushing, barging and tackling are extremely common responses – even (and especially) amongst highly trained martial artists who have focused their training on maintaining distance. Long range stepping and attacking tend to occur most often when chasing a retreating person that has not been held, or on joining ‘another’ struggle to help a friend after dealing with an aggressor in a multiple person situation.

In my scenario simulations various patterns of behaviour emerge. I’m not referring to the HAOV of the role-playing aggressors, or the adrenal reactions of the surprised trainees who suddenly find themselves attacked while trying to defuse an argument, but in the patterns that successful counter tactics form.   As part of the training the scenarios are videoed and the footage examined frame by frame to give feedback. What is consistently visible in the footage is that successful navigation and extraction of participants from the close quarter fighting comes through movements and stances that more closely resemble the strategies that are shown in karate kata, even amongst those participants who have no martial arts experience. In fact if I were to edit out the attacker from the video so that it appeared as if the defender were fighting thin air, then the resulting movements would look more akin to a kata than anything else seen in the martial arts. Those that have specifically trained to use the kata against HAOV on a regular basis do exceptionally well in such scenario training by using the kata practically. This pattern of both striking and ‘grappling’ (or anti-grappling if you prefer) on the part of both attacker and defender, and the resulting kata mirror, makes a further convincing case for both the need and presence of grappling and throwing in karate kata.

One of the most noticeable elements of karate kata is the relative paucity of ‘obvious’ striking techniques. In terms of overall quantity the majority of the kata are made up of uke receiving techniques combined with hikite pulling motions (and in some systems preparatory extended arm thrusting motions), then we have ‘obvious’ open and close handed thrusting / punching / striking motions and finally we have the emphasised kneeing or kicking techniques.

The idea that uke techniques are only ‘blocks’ and that their predominance in kata reflects the defensive nature of karate should be rejected for a number of reasons. Firstly, deflecting and blocking attacks is a largely instinctive action that does not require specialised movement, though as I outlined above training to deflect and parry attacks is not a waste of time. If you observe anyone shielding themselves against a committed attack outside of set prearranged sparring combinations, you will see them cover, parry, slap, duck or flinch (or any combination of those), and any time you see anything resembling part of a fixed uke technique it will be because the uke technique itself mimics natural movement. Secondly the best form of defence is offence, and that principle has been enshrined in martial writings across many cultures for centuries. A committed attack is not stopped by continuous deflection but by pattern disrupting behaviour that forces reaction and reorientation. Thirdly it is unlikely to be a coincidence that uke techniques function extremely well as striking, unbalancing, trapping and limb (and head) manipulation movements in stand up grappling. Finally it is incongruous that the majority of the movements being drilled in kata should be devoted to anything other than navigating the most common problems posed by violent incidents.

The requirement of good training to address the most common problems takes us back to the weighting of movements in the kata. When I look at the footage of the skilled and unskilled martial artists working to extricate themselves from close quarter force on force violent confrontations in the hundreds of scenario training simulations that I have run (whether on their own against a single assailant, against a group, or part of the chaos of multiple groups of people in an argument that has escalated to physical violence) the weighting of techniques and time is as follows in order of frequency:

  • moving and manipulating others to gain a position from which to strike, control or escape (predominantly extracting oneself from multiple punches, grabs, high tackles and clinches),
  • striking with the forearms, elbows or hands,
  • kneeing,
  • kicking with the foot.

This distribution of movement mirrors the emphasis on techniques in the majority of karate kata, especially with the ability of most uke techniques to function as short close range strikes (often using the forearm) as well as stand up grappling (or grappling avoidance and escape) movements.

My approach to and interpretation of the application of uke techniques is neither new nor unique, and it is not the only valid approach. From my perspective though it is one that is underwritten by textual evidence from past generations of karateka and their antecedents, is orientated towards the purpose of karate as described by Anko Itosu, fits the uncomfortable realities of civilian self defence (as shown by CCTV footage, years of hospital emergency room data, decades of consistent violent crime surveys and reports, and accompanying psychological and physiological research into human behaviour), and is supported by the fact that entire uke techniques and indeed entire kata sequences can be applied realistically under pressure with other techniques (from the same kata) acting as effective redundancies in the event of less than optimal performance. A few photos in isolation (and possibly out of context without explanation) or a short video of a single application cannot convey its holistic integrity, appropriateness or effectiveness.   If you really want to understand or judge my approach then you need to train with me.

8 comments

  1. Execellent post. thanks to share this.

  2. It’s a good article John, but with regards to your definition of what makes an uke technique, you have the weight of history against you.

    From footage of Funakoshi and Nishiyama sensei, to Choki Motobu’s applications of naihanchi, to footage of the Isshinryu founder, and applications of every karate ryu known to man ever have applied the basic uke techniques as the forearm deflection. The broader two handed motion is, at least in terms of kihon, a strategically non essential training device.
    That is not to say I don’t believe in making use of the full kihon technique, but it’s supplemental to the art as it was passed down, not core to it.

    1. David, thanks for your comments. You make an interesting and important point, but I think it rests on a key misinterpretation of what has been demonstrated in that footage. When examining Uke I’ve also considered the context in which those pieces of information/images/footage have been presented: it is karate for the masses. Those images show the most basic level of application, often in pre-arranged applications that were designed for safe (and increasing sport or competition orientated) practice for large groups of young men who wanted to apply their kata. There is in many cases a disconnect between that footage and written descriptions of applications in their textual legacy (which would require detailed study with either that teacher or cross training in a grappling art to be applicable). Given the way karate was taught before its expansion into the school systems a disconnect between what was shown in public as ‘entry level’ stuff and what might be shared with long standing trusted students is not only natural, it is to be expected. The weight of history lies in the textual evidence (backed by physical application) for uke as multi-faceted movements of which a core application was as grappling techniques, not in the pictures of basic and unrealistic application for public consumption. Deflection is one aspect of Uke techniques but to think it is the primary one because of surviving footage is to take them out of context.

      With regard to two handed motions versus one handed motions, in my experience I have found that often the two handed motion is essential to a good working of a particular extraction technique. In some that I demonstrate in my seminars rather than my books the action of the second hand provides the important redundancy for the failure of the first, particularly in dynamic training against resisting people.

  3. Hi John, thanks for replying.

    Your argument is reasonable, but it has one gaping hole in the shape of Choki Motobu. He used uke techniques in the same (as evidenced by YouTube footage of his son demoing the naihanchi drills that his father taught). He was the premier pragmatist of his day, renowned for open practical fight oriented training.

    Your approach also tries to hold Okinawa in a vacuum, where in actuality you have the whole of traditional Chinese MA to compare with, where we find uke techniques taught and used as simple blocks despite unbroken lineages and none of the issues that arose in karate from the art being taught in schools.

    As a historic counterpoint, karate was also taught to young men who would be called up to go to war, yet no one thought it would be a good time to show more effective technique?

    The real trouble is the JKA. The rigid empty handed kendo taught in Japan has become the stock image people conjure when you talk about blocks. But it is not the only way to interpret kata while still using forearm blocks to defend with. Motobu’s Work evidences the fact as does the whole of CMA.

    1. Thanks for coming back to me with other ideas.

      I don’t see the Motobu pictures/heritage or the CMA usage as Uke as deflections as a gaping hole in my argument (actually I think they support my argument about choices of teaching material in Japan and choices of teaching material for public consumption). Are deflections practical? Yes. Are they the only practical usage of the techniques? No.

      The Motobu footage is public footage and limited. As such I would not expect it to focus heavily on the grappling within karate as the art was predominantly being marketed as a striking art (and it is, but in reality at the range where most fights initiate or end up, unless you are skilled in preemptive striking you tend to have to employ what most would consider to be grappling skills (or limb deflecting skills) to get to the strikes). The drills demonstrated by Motobu’s son are also ‘public karate’ and I would be shocked if these were the only applications either knew.

      I don’t regard the Karate taught to young men about to go to war in Japan as anything more than the PE syllabus karate. Karate as a way of instilling confidence, fighting spirit and a degree of physical conditioning. Unarmed combat has never been a high priority in military training in modern armies and this karate was essentially PE rather than the self defence that Itosu envisioned as the combative side of karate. I also doubt that those teaching had the knowledge of how to apply the karate (outside of formalised exercises) imparted to them.

      I don’t think I am looking at the Okinawan footage in isolation. The trapping, deflecting and wrestling I see using these techniques is material evidenced both in the Okinawan Bubishi and in CMA that I have seen. I am fortunate to have had a few very experienced CMAists come to my training and to have observed and trained with others and I see the same free multiple application of movements to either deflect or control or grapple depending on range and need in those practitioners.

      1. Hi John, sorry for the looong delay.

        Please bear in mind that how you use your uke techniques is not really in question by me. All I am arguing is the dogma that “blocks don’t work” based on the straw man argument that a block/uke is the complete two handed training technique.

        I am arguing that the impractical slow two handed chamber & prep then block, is and always has been a training device. Yes, it has direct applications and can be turned into a range of other useful tools.

        But forearm blocks do work. We were never meant to do the whole chamber-prep-block in a real fight and with the exception of a few revisionists who were too caught up in playing samurai to ask or think for themselves, no one has ever used taught them that way.

        I agree that the karate we see in pictures was mostly pe. Motobu though was the exception as he was dead against hiding real karate. Could he have hidden the best stuff for family only? Possible but it’s a major assumption with no evidence to support it. Given his families refusal to teach him their secret art I think it more likely that he would shun secrecy.

        As I say, I admire your approach, but I feel your rhetoric goes a step too far and in doing so influence people to ignore valuable elements of karate.

      2. Thanks for continuing to read and share ideas.

        I don’t hold the dogma “blocks don’t work” – I think they do. What I’m discussing here is what I do and do not consider to be a ‘block’, what I consider to be a purely natural movement (that can however be refined by training along with our ability to spot and therefore react to stimuli quicker), and how I see these as being used.

        My view on what is or is not a ‘block’ or ‘uke’ technique is a personal one. I don’t expect everyone to share it. I don’t believe that the ‘double arm motion’ is just a training phase (as might be stated by people who’ve found that it doesn’t work in kumite and thus adopted one tiny element of the uke movement (which coincidentally is generally the natural untrained response of someone who spots the stimulus in time to act)) even though it can be used for that purpose. The reason I don’t believe in it being ‘just for training’ that is because it occurs in the kata, and because the whole chamber/prep/block does do work in situations resembling real fights when each component element is used differently to how I initially learned it in the artificial environments of kihon and kumite.

        The double arm action can be used as a training phase only by people who never go on to learn applications for those combined actions, and it can be taught right from the start as a close quarter application. Which model people choose to do is entirely up to them. The bigger movement is certainly beneficial for hipwork development even if it is never taught in a combative sense. People are free to call and learn the smaller movements by the nearest related ‘uke’ term rather than seeing them as parries or deflections. I don’t call them ‘uke’ but if that’s the easiest way for a teacher to help them identify what they should be doing then I can understand them doing so.

        I think Motobu’s stuff is interesting. Do I put him (or others of his generation) on a pedestal above the insights or teaching of modern karateka? No. Motobu is a product of the benefits and limitations of his time and while we should take the opportunity to study his work and that of his peers we should not be limited by it.

        I’m not trying to influence people in such a way that they ignore valuable elements of karate, quite the opposite. I want people to approach what they are learning with an analytic mind and to seek to improve their understanding of the diversity of approaches and skills that are available in their karate.

  4. […] martial arts forms, it is not the most common movement, particularly in karate forms. You’ll see other techniques that can act as strikes with the forearm or elbow, grappling movements, shielding or parrying, […]

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