22 May, 2012

Knife Defenses in Karate

After my last post (more of a reference to another blog, really) I was asked about what knife fighting might mean in karate specifically.  I thought this was a good idea, and below are some of my thoughts, presented in my usual style - scattered and stream of conscious.

I titled this post Knife Defenses and not Knife Fighting as I believe there is a key difference.  Knives are not expressly dealt with within the karate curriculum (although some waza from the kata do seem to apply readily to knife defenses), and the weapon itself is not taught as it is in other systems.  As such fighting would seem to imply that the practitioner him/her-self would have proficiency and familiarity with the weapon and its application.

Some arts that come to mind are koryu that deal with shoto, and some jujutsu styles that deal with dagger usage and defense.  There are of course the many styles throughout Asia, particularly Eskrima/Kali, Silat, and Kalaripayattu.  These styles all include the use of and training in short bladed weaponry as a part of regular syllabus.  Karate does not feature this weapon - even if we are to include Ryukyu Kobudo into the mix, the closest karate comes is to the Timbe and Rochin, namely a short spear or primitive knife with a shield.  I should add that in my experience these latter weapons are not typical of most kobudo schools - usually karate kobudo consists of bo, tonfa, sai and maybe nunchaku and kama.  I know that in my school kobudo technically consists of bo, tonfa and sai.  Other styles are added to the weapons program for diversity.

My experience with the knife has been limited to a small amount of Eskrima many years ago, mainly in light use of the balisong, as well as knife defenses in my current dojo.  Our focus is on a dedicated attack. Once you are inside the danger zone of the knife, you need to finish the encounter and the opponent immediately and brutally.  It is the only way you can be sure you will have time to call the ambulance, as you will likely be injured.

The nature of karate, which in my opinion is aimed at striking to change maai to allow for a throw and finishing strike, presents a bit of a dilemma.  Closing in seems to me to be a poor choice of technique when facing a fast slicing or stabbing weapon of short range.

That all being said, I do believe that a karateka has options when working on knife defenses.  The first is the tool/technique tai sabaki, or evasive body movements.  This is often used in a sparring context but should not be underestimated as a tool for both offensive and defensive capability.  I think it goes without saying that being in the right place at the right time means the difference between a successful technique and a disastrous technique.  Primarily for a knife fighting situation I envision the need to avoid being "inside" the arms, that is between either limb, and rather outside or behind the attacker.  This puts one in the best position to control the weapon/limb as well as be in position for a counter attack.

Another piece of advice with regards to weapons comes from Gichin Funakoshi's book Karate-Do Kyohan, in which he states that the karateka should always imagine the opponents hands and feet as blades.  Any strike in training should be avoided and controlled, and in this manner does the karateka keep him/her-self safe from harm while allowing for optimal defense.  I think this concept readily applies to knife defenses from an unarmed perspective.  I would say, overall, that the basic karate axioms for dealing with any attack is:

  1. Control the attack
  2. Position for counter
  3. Counter and set up for finish
  4. Finish and get the hell home ;)

I think that we can safely breakdown #1 into a) defend against the specific attack (block, redirect, grab, etc) and b) counter strike to disorient or buy time or fill the gap between 1 and 2.

Finally, I did some searching for other's take on knife defenses from a karate point of view, and this is what I found:

This first video shows a couple of defenses, but I think the first one best illustrates what I mean by breaking down #1 in a) and b).  You can see evasive body movement (pulling back the torso), blocking and grabbing with a scissoring wrist technique (juji uke) and countering with a head butt.

Similarly I can think of a technique from the kata Shisochin, specifically the namesake of the kata - the four gates or four monk postures.  Please see this video, around 0:28 mark until 0:34.

We can see a redirection of an incoming thrust, the hand then sliding inside the attackers arm/wrist as a mild sticky-hands sort of temporary control.  Simultaneous to this is the palm heel to the face to disorient, buying time for further control of the weapon (preferably trapping the hand with it).

I also found something that worried me greatly and I think is a great example of a really poor choice of technique in general.  Please see the below link, down towards the bottom of the page is a picture of a karateka dropping to the floor to execute a roundhouse kick to the opponent's abdomen.

I can't think of a more worrisome position for a karateka - on the ground within range of a person who knows who to use a knife, all for the minimal gain of perhaps injuring the ribs?  With no further defensive recourse?  Even running away has been eliminated as an option.  Not my first choice even in a situation without a weapon.

Finally, I have an interesting video of knife defenses from another art.  I find it fascinating to see how this weapon is used and dealt with in a vastly different art from my own.

I would draw everyone's attention to a few points in this video.  First the evasive body motions, second the control of the weapon and the limb through simultaneous blocking/striking, third improvisation of a tool to help engage the enemy, and fourth the closing of range in a manner beneficial only for the defender and disadvantageous for the attacker.  The finishing technique is part throw/take-down and finishing strike.  I like this clip as I see it as embodying the same principles as karate's approach to self defense.

As always, I look forward to other's comments.  I know my own insights are somewhat lacking due to my lack of training in knives as a weapon.


  1. You are breaking it down to what is really needed and I like your research.

    First video - not bad for knife defenses. Getting control of the knife wielding arm is to me number one. Then you should destroy it, if possible. I took issues with a couple things, but overall the main elements were there and the Sensei seemed pretty competent.

    Second example. Can't agree with you more. Don't lay down and kick up at an armed attacker. Just dumb.

    Third video. Some good stuff in there. Some stuff would be challenging to pull off under true strength but some of the movement was very good. Improvised things like shirts can be valuable, but incorporating them into a life/death encounter would take a lot of skill.

    I hope you keep exploring edged weapons survival. There's a ton of crappy stuff out there to sift through, but some good stuff as well.

    With knife survival, as I call it, it shouldn't matter what art you take. The concepts for surviving aren't exclusive to any one art. This has a deeper meaning in the context of all martial arts and real combat, but that's more of a philosophical debate, perhaps for another time.

    I like the path you're on. Good thoughts.

  2. I accidentally skipped the kata demonstration when I numbered stuff. Sorry about that.

    1. Thanks Journeyman. I appreciate the feedback.