No First Strike In Chivalry

Scott Farrell comments:

A warrior’s code isn’t a thinly veiled license to attack others. In the 11th century, the Code of Chivalry (then a relatively new concept) established the doctrine of a “just war,” that is, the idea that a nation only puts its warriors on a course to war for a cause that is right and morally justifiable — to defend the helpless or stop persecution, for example. (But not, in contrast, to “defend its honor” or win loot.)

Here’s an essay that brings that notion down to the individual level — an examination of the sticky question: If following the Code of Chivalry means I can’t throw the first punch, does that mean I’m supposed to let myself get hit before I can put up a fight? Or, as Pellinore asks in Camelot: “I say, Arthur! Do you mean to say a chap has to wait till he’s killed before he can attack?”

It’s an age-old and universal quandary for followers of the warrior way. Martial arts expert Lawrence A. Kane, author of The Way of Kata, shows us that Oriental martial arts emphasize the defensive responsibility of a master warrior. (Interestingly, Western martial arts emphasize this as well with sword-fighting techniques like the Absetzen, which combines a block and thrust as a single movement, and is hailed as the highest form of martial skill.) It’s a reminder that, despite mastery of combative techniques, a chivalrous warrior never shows aggression or escaltes a hostile situation, no matter what martial tradition he or she follows.

A gentle but strong philosophy of chivalry in martial art

lawrence-kaneKarate is first and foremost a defensive art. This essential tradition is best described by Gichin Funakosi’s famous saying, “There is no first strike in karate.” While this statement is absolutely true, it is also commonly misunderstood.

To be clear, karateka (practitioners of karate), like most martial artists, are taught to avoid seeking conflict. This convention helps practitioners of potentially lethal arts behave in a manner appropriate to interaction within polite society, something I think we’d all agree is a positive thing indeed.

What many don’t realize is that defensive techniques, when executed properly, are designed to be just as “fight stopping” as offensive ones. Here is where the confusion lies.

The ancient masters understood that if they were to only block an adversary’s attack he would continue to strike until either they did something more effective to stop him, or they were beaten to a bloody pulp. Consequently, every martial application, including defensive ones, were designed in such a manner that they could be used to end a confrontation as quickly as possible.

To many, “no first strike” implies waiting for an adversary to attack, then trying to successfully counter when you are already injured or out of position. In order to decipher the true intent of Funakoshi’s statement, we must understand three Japanese terms: 1) go no sen, 2) sen no sen, and 3) sen-sen no sen.

Go no sen means “late initiative,” blocking and riposting after an enemy has already attacked. It is a great learning method because it breaks advanced techniques down into small movements, but it is not practical on the street.

Sen no sen means “simultaneous initiative,” intercepting the adversary’s blow just after it begins. This is an intermediate form of karate, using quickness and power to simultaneously attack and defend, cutting off the opponent’s strike before it makes contact.

Sen-sen no sen means “preemptive initiative,” cutting off a blow before it even starts. Practitioners sense that an attack will be forthcoming and then cut it short before the aggressor has a chance to transform the mental desire to attack into physical movement.

Sen-sen no sen, cutting off an attack before it is fully in play, looks an awful lot like a first strike, yet it is still a defensive movement. This is what Funakoshi really meant: Striking to cut off an impending attack is okay, while instigating unwarranted violence is not. If you can walk away from a confrontation you absolutely should do so. Most rational people would agree that picking fights is simply a bad idea. In fact, the more dangerous you really are, the less you should feel a need to prove it.

To clarify further Funakoshi wrote:

“When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow … escape and seek shelter and help.”

Notice that he wrote, “at that time attack him” as opposed to, “after he strikes launch your counterattack.” Sen-sen no sen is fully consistent with this approach.

Clearly martial artists should only engage in physical violence if there is no other choice. In the 6th century B.C. Sun Tzu wrote:

“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue an enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”

There are many peaceful ways to settle a disagreement, any one of which is preferable to a physical confrontation (but) that does not mean that you must stand around waiting to get hit before you can act in your own defense.

© 2007 Lawrence A. Kane

About the Author: Lawrence A. Kane has studied and taught a wide variety of martial arts over the last 30 years, including karate, kobudo and medieval weapons forms. He is the author of Martial Arts Instruction (2004) and The Way of Kata, (2005).