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Karate Terminology

Part of learning Karate is learning the terminology of the art. But since Karate originated in Okinawa, the original art was taught in the Ryukyu dialect (or perhaps even in Chinese). This dialect is usually called Hogen. But Mark Tankosich told me that Hogen actually refers to any dialect, not just the Ryukyu (or Okinawan) one(s).

When Karate was taught on mainland Japan, and even in Okinawa after the 1900's or so, the Japanese language was used to teach Karate. This is because the Japanese language was required to be spoken in the Okinawan school system. Speaking Hogen could get children, and even teachers, in trouble.

So today, most of the terminology of Karate is in Japanese. When we refer to a punch as a tsuki and a kick as a keri, we are using Japanese terms.

But there is nothing special or magic about the Japanese language. It is only helpful to use the Japanese language when visitors come from Japan or we go there.

My point is that a punch is a punch, whether you call it a tsuki or even a goose. The technique is what counts, not the term.

When the early Karate writers described the art, the had to come up with terminology to describe the movements. I understand that in the early days, there were very few terms to describe the art. There certainly were not terms to describe each and every movement and technique.

But writers being writers, it was easy for them to come up with terms. They described the movements using their own everyday language. A kick was simply a kick, or keri. When you kicked with the tips of your toes (tsumasaki) you did a tsumasaki geri. This simply means "tip of toe kick."

Sometimes the techniques were cloaked in swordsmanship terms, probably to make Karate more appealing to the Japanese. When we execute a nukite (spear hand) we are actually using our yubisaki (fingertips). When we execute a shuto (sword hand), we really are not using a sword, we are using the side of our hand.

A gedan uke is simply a downward block. There is nothing special about it. What is special is knowing how to do it well. If you do it well, you could call it a "duck."

Sensei Morio Higaonna told me that in Hogen, the word for "kiai" is "yagi", which means "voice arrow." Your voice pierced like an arrow. I like that very much.

Using words is necessary. But words do not mean that you can actually do the technique. They are just words. And there is a real risk that words can limit our understanding of a technique.

Take uraken, for example. This literally means "back fist." But you do not hit with the back of your fist. You hit with your knuckles. The back of your fist is filled with small bones. It is easy to suffer fractures in this area. The knuckles are much stronger.

You might also call an uraken a "club fist" because it is like hitting with a club. But it actually is not like hitting with a club at all. You must flex your wrist during uraken. Your wrist is not kept straight. "Club fist" gives the wrong idea.

Perhaps it might be better to call the technique "a whipping strike with the back of the fist but using the knuckles." But, of course, that would be too long. So we will continue to use the term uraken -- and try to remind our students about how to properly execute the technique.

Please don't get me wrong. It is good to understand Karate terminology. But is is equally important to understand the limitations of terminology, and that words are just words. Ability is what counts, in any language.

Be careful that someone does not hit you in the nose with a duck.


Charles C. Goodin