Ikken Hissatsu: the Kendo-Karate Connection

If you practice any form of Japanese karate, you need to understand that one of the most significant influences on your martial arts training has been kendo. Virtually all senior Japanese karate instructors in the West have been influenced by it since the 1960s. Sometimes the influences are conscious, other times they're not. Over the years, I've rarely met a Western karateka who's practiced kendo or even knows much about it. This lack of technical skill is not important. What is important is that you understand how much kendo flavor there is apt to be in your karate.


Ikken hissatsu, or “killing with a single blow," is a fundamental concept in many karate dojo. Even if it's recognized as an ideal rather than a practical end, students strive to make the perfect punch, the one that will end the conflict. Many of them may consider this a distinguishing feature of karate, but it's not. It's appeared in the lore of karate only recently—not because of anything Okinawan but because of kendo.

Ikken hissatsu is a very real possibility when you have a sword in your hands. For the samurai, a single kendo technique could finish things. The shape of the sword caused it not just to cut but also to split flesh open, creating gaping wounds. It didn't take much of a strike to kill an opponent. Swordsmen went into fights fully aware of this, and it bred a certain mentality. When the Okinawans introduced karate to Japan, a number of cultural factors were in play.

A samurai with a sword regarded a karateka the way a Green Beret with an M4 rifle might regard an opponent with a stick. Japanese society was an armed one. The people looked on unarmed combat as a practice for country bumpkins. To overcome that perception, early karate leaders tried to connect their art to arts that were familiar to the Japanese. Additionally, kendo was extremely popular in the early 20th century.

Most schoolboys trained in it, and the police practiced it avidly. The Japanese were accustomed to “thinking" in kendo. So it's natural that young men taking up the new karate would bring that mentality to the dojo. Of course, in the case of “killing with a single blow," it helped karate's image to be pictured as so lethal that a single punch could cause death. While the motivations and perceptions of senior karate teachers and enthusiastic students are understandable, karate isn't kendo. The culture in which it developed is different from the culture that spawned kendo in several critical ways.

There's little evidence that a fight was meant to be settled with a single blow when karate was practiced in Okinawa. If you're training to accomplish such a feat and enter into contests with that in mind, it's going to have an effect on your karate. It's difficult, probably futile, to point to a “typical Okinawan karate."

Methods and techniques were varied, of course. We can surmise, looking at many of the forms that still exist there, however, that the aim of much of Okinawan karate has always been to close in and combine grappling with striking techniques that render the opponent helpless, then further incapacitate him with strikes.

There are stories of single-blow knockouts in the lore of Okinawan karate, but very little in the training at most Okinawan dojo reflects this as a primary goal. In Okinawa, the combat influences of other striking arts on karate have been overwhelmingly southern Chinese kung fu, where a series of rapid strikes is typically employed. Practitioners unleash blow after blow in a strategy aimed at getting at least one through any person's defenses.

The concept of killing with a single hit wasn't introduced until long after karate had matured. So what? Arts change. Karate's exposure to Western boxing led to changes, and scientific weight training has been introduced in many dojo. While it's true that the kendo-influenced notion of killing with a single strike is just one of many influences exerted on karate, in each of these cases, it has meant change.

In particular, ikken hissatsu brought a whole new dimension to karate competition in 1930s Japan. Where karateka once exchanged karate techniques, giving and receiving in a flowing rhythm, this rhythm was broken with contests. Opponents tended to space themselves farther apart, move around each other, look for an opening and then try to make a decisive strike that would win the bout. In other words, they began to look and think like kendoka.

Modern karateka need to consider this influence. Is it a good one? A bad one? Somewhere in between? Maybe the way you answer those questions isn't as important as whether you understand how the change occurred in the first place and what it means to your training today.

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Dustin Poirier has knocked out Conor McGregor in the second round at the UFC 257 Main Event. This spoils McGregor's long-awaited UFC return after his win over Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone last January. Poirier hinted after the match that he would be open to another bout against McGregor, as this fight brings their rivalry to a 1-1 record. The impressive wins of Poirier and Michael Chandler on Saturday night set the UFC's lightweight division up for a very exciting future.

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A Closer Look at Mongolia's Naadam Festival

Mongolia's "three sports of men" — archery, horseracing and wrestling — were the featured attractions at the first Naadam festival convened by Genghis Kahn himself in 1206.

Fast-forward to the 21st century: The festivals, held nationwide in mid-July each year, still celebrate the formation of the Mongolian Empire and its achievement of independence from China's Qing Dynasty.

The highlight of modern incarnations of Naadam is the wrestling, and many boys who grow up on the steppes dream of one day being crowned a champion.

The wrestling competitions are single-elimination tournaments. Wrestlers wear trunks and an open-chest shirt with a rope tied around the abdomen, all of which opponents are allowed to grab. The most common colors seen are red, which symbolizes power, and blue, which represents the Mongolian sky.

The author (left) grapples with a Mongolian wrestler.

The grapplers also wear heavy traditional boots and a Mongolian hat. The four sides of the hat represent the four provinces of old Mongolia. The top knot is for the five regions of the Buddhist government. The silver badge attached to each hat bears the animal ranking of the wrestler.

In competition, the wrestlers have to win six matches to be crowned champion. There are no weight classes, which is perhaps why the top grapplers generally weigh 260 pounds or more. The goal is to make the opponent touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet.

Because of the coronavirus, the most recent Naadam competition in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar took place without an audience. Spectators had to watch on television or online.

At the competitions in the provinces, however, the action was live, and residents of nearby towns showed up to watch.

In a secondary subdivision called Temenzogt, located about seven hours' drive from Ulaanbaatar, I was fortunate to have a chance to wrestle in a Naadam event.

Author Antonio Graceffo (right) and his opponent.

After quickly sizing up my huge opponent, a former champion, I braced myself for a pushing and pulling battle of upper-body strength. I was surprised when he chose to use his heavy boots and massive thighs to kick my legs out from under me.

And with that, my Naadam experience came to an abrupt end. I was grateful, however, for the efforts of all my Mongolian friends who made it possible for me to fulfill my dream of wrestling in Naadam.

I learned a lot about Mongolia, the culture and the ground, so much so that I've decided to stay here another year and really dedicate myself to learning Mongolian wrestling.

Maybe at next year's Nadaam, I'll be able to last 20 seconds.

Antonio Graceffo writes Black Belt's Destinations column. Read more of his work here. His book Warrior Odyssey is available here.

Photos Courtesy of Antonio Graceffo

To read more about Mongolian wrestling, check out "Wrestling With the Descendants of Genghis Khan: Black Belt's Asia Correspondent Travels to Mongolia to Grapple!" in our February/March 2021 issue. Go here to order your copy from the Black Belt Store!

In a competition bereft of many of its top wrestlers, Daieisho was a surprise winner of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament Sunday in Tokyo. With the area under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic and a post-war record 19 wrestlers withdrawing from the event, Daieisho pulled off the upset victory coming from the maegashira level, the lowest of five ranks in sumo's top division, to win the title.

It was Daieisho's first championship as he finished the event with a 13-2 record. Displaying a powerful pushing and thrusting style, he also garnered the prize for outstanding performance during the tournament as well as the prize for best technique.

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