05 September, 2011

Kumite vs Kumitachi

I have been thinking recently about the history of karate, the "invention" of kumite (in its various forms) and comparing it to the koryu practice of kumitachi.

First, lets break down both words.  My japanese is horrible, so if anyone can confirm/deny my translations, it is appreciated.  Kumi is a noun meaning a set, group or collection.  It has the implicit meaning of pre-built or pre-arranged.  Tachi means sword, and Te means hand/fist.  Kumitachi is often translated as a pre-arranged two person sword form/practice, and kumite is the same but for empty-handed combat.  The meaning inherent in each is a format to let the student understand the techniques being worked on in an environment which, while somewhat safe (at least to start), still adds in the variables and challenges presented by a thinking human.  The responses of the attacker, while arranged, are subject to distance, timing, correct execution while at speed and under duress, to name a few variables.

During a recent seminar, I had the chance to practice some kumitachi of Ni Ten Ichi Ryu (the sword style made famous by Musashi).  I really got into it, despite being banged around, and I found myself trying to emulate the feeling behind the techniques.  Oddly, this is something I have yet to experience in kumite, the karate equivalent.  I have tried to embody certain animals while sparring (crane and tiger, most often), but there was never the driving force of worry of injury.

While injury is prevalent in sparring conditions in karate, I think that most people do not take it as seriously, mainly because there is no clear weapon.  Even using a "soft" weapon like shinai, there is a greater sense of urgency, danger and realism that is often not captured in karate sparring.

I found this after recently working on footwork.  While the footwork was interesting, it was not a new concept and I found that I have been using similar techniques unconsciously.  I hope to attribute my use to over a decade in the arts, but perhaps it was mere fluke.  But this brought me to the realization that I wasn't getting as much out of my kumite as I did out of the kumitachi.  My partner was never in any danger of doing me serious harm - if they had been armed with any form of weapon, the intent and seriousness of my response would be altered.  I realized that this same intent was not mirrored by my partners - jiyu kumite (free sparring) was more of a game.  Indeed, the footwork we had been working was from a sort of "bouncing" movement common in sport fighting.  The term we use if yadi-yashi or yadi ashi, neither of which I can find as correct or adequate translations.

This led to another realization on my part.  I don't care for sport kumite.  While footwork, distancing, timing, stances, generation of power are all the same, the sort of in and out bouncing movement is entirely in-congruent with a realistic self-defence scenario.  My interests lie outside of that, to something which stretches to reach the mental state of ancient warriors of times past.  The ability to summon and maintain mushin (no-mind) and assert my ability to get home alive is the real goal.

This is the attitude that I will strive to induce and use in my own sparring from this point onwards.  But this leaves the question, what should replace traditional kumite?  Is it just a matter of intent?  Do we (karateka as a whole) need to work more realistic scenarios, pulling from our knowledge of kata?  While some may do this, I cannot say that this is my case.  I have yet to internalize the intent of kata and been able to apply it in a kumite fashion (perhaps due to the aforementioned sport-style).

A sobering set of thoughts, on my end.


  1. Here is a short documentary on the Kyokushin Karate practice of 100 man kummite:


  2. Thanks for the link, Rick. I have heard a lot about the 100 man kumite, especially in an interview from Jon Bluming (one of Mas Oyama's students). I have also had the opportunity to spar against a Kyoshinkai karateka. Definitely an interesting experience, but my real concern was the lack of defence to the head. Its okay to choose not to attack the head, but in my experience this breeds the problem of not defending the head. Its a bit like working on knife defences with a wooden knife - if your defence relies on holding the knife at the tip, it makes me question the usefulness of working that defence.

  3. The head strikes are barred from the 100 man kumite for a very practical reason: once the subject began taking on some cuts and bruises to the face, he'd swell up and wouldn't be able to see going into the later rounds.

    It's a training method.

  4. Oh I totally agree it is entirely practical. I just meant that preparation for such fighting is also training the body for a response which can be dangerous outside of this application.

  5. ... and that happens in many martial arts/schoools. Consider "no contact" sparring. Yikes!

  6. That is a great point Rick. Thanks for your comments. Very thought provoking.

  7. While intrigued by your article, I'm not sure I understand it. I think my problem that my training is all about sports kumite. Our sparing is called bugo kumite and its basically, kick boxing. I think bugo translates as "with armor". We wear a full set of pads.

    My school is a blended school: our base forms are kenpo. I have trouble connecting the highly stylized kenpo katas with the sports sparing. I like both but actually, they seem like such different types of disciplines.

  8. Haha, I guess that would be because my posts are often just my thoughts on a particular subject, put down into writing to help clarify what it means.

    I basically feel that modern karate sparring, in most places, is more sport oriented while claiming it is of benefit for self-defense. I found kumitachi and similar koryu forms to be more realistic in the mental approach required for defense. Strategy and tactics - stepping into the attack and finishing the encounter. Modern sparring tends to stick around for 3 strikes before bouncing out again.

    Just my opinion, and of course doesn't apply to everyone or every school.

    Thanks for your comment, BBat.