As students of the Way, we have all heard the same precept repeated time and time again by our Sensei the world over, “There is no first strike in Karate,” which is the second of Gichin Funakoshi Sensei’s twenty karate precepts. This is all well and good. However, there seems to be a common misconception about what this statement actually implies. If asked the meaning behind this precept, the vast majority of answers regardless if the karateka level ranges from novice, intermediate, advanced or instructor, will be that it implies that one should never, “throw the first punch.” This interpretation is because we have all been taught that the techniques and tactics learned through karate training are to be used for defense only. Even when observing kata we notice that the first technique executed is usually a blocking technique.
When it comes to physical conflict, statistics show that the individual whom takes the initiative to engage first usually is the victor. The formula is very simple. Action beats reaction. It is arrogant to think that our training will enable us to intercept any and all attacks that are launched by an aggressor. Funakoshi Sensei was implying that at no time should any karateka instigate a conflict. We are not bullies, and only a bully will instigate a conflict with the goal of a resulting fight.
The perception of never physically throwing the first attack has caused many a karateka much pain and suffering. The preemptive strike is a tactic that should be highly encouraged to karateka in the event that they find themselves in a position where a fight is immanent. There is no reason for a karateka to stand still and wait for the attack he or she knows is inevitably coming for them. In doing so the karateka places themselves in a very high-risk situation. As previously, stated action beats reaction. Waiting for the attack places you on the defensive, which means that you are playing catch up and your aggressor has control of the tempo of the altercation. While from a legal standpoint you’ll be safe from arrest by the police or prosecution in court, you also place your self at a significant tactical disadvantage which could have dire consequences. It is wise to be proactive vice reactive in situations where the risk for physical violence escalates. That being said, most altercations resulting in a fight are unlikely to have any law enforcement involvement let alone legal ramification. The idea that as a karateka you are legally obligated to wait for the first physical attack is a romanticized fantasy developed from all of the chop-saki movies from the late 70’s through the mid to late 90’s.
Going back to the earlier point of the kata all beginning with a blocking technique, we have to observe that not all things are, as they seem. A short study of the bunkai within the kata will reveal a shocking number of offensive attacks in the first step of the kata. From this point of view we discover that the initial perception is probably best suited for the very young karateka just beginning their training. It will take a mature mind to view this issue from the darker and more aggressive side without crossing the line between taking the initiative when a fight is unavoidable and provoking a fight that could have otherwise been avoided all together.
Remember we have a moral obligation and responsibility to exercise the appropriate judgment when the risk of violence is present. Always seek the path of peace but keep in mind that your first instinct is usually correct. Launching the first attack is not the same as instigating the fight. Action beats reaction.
Honshū & Hokkaidō
The two species of wolf native to Japan until their extinction in the early