Sabaki Karate

As Seen Through the Evolution of Enshin Karate's Rules, Concepts and Techniques

In Japanese, sabaki means "to work with energy efficiently." It's a state of being that expresses strength coupled with ease and grace. My father Joko Ninomiya, the founder and grandmaster of enshin karate, created the Sabaki Challenge, a tournament designed to highlight this intelligent system of working with an opponent's force, which often involves taking advantage of circles and leverage. Sabaki is not a martial art per se; rather, it's a traditional idea that's open to evolution and reinterpretation — and that just might precipitate a revolution in the fighting arts.


In this article, I will present four concepts and several related techniques that illustrate this special quality of sabaki. I chose these four because during the pandemic, my father decided to incorporate newaza (ground techniques) into the enshin curriculum. This serves as a bridge to grappling for people who are used to striking and a bridge to striking for grapplers who are used to the ground.

The irony is that when you use sabaki, you're not fighting your opponent. You're working with natural geometric shapes like circles, triangles, straight lines and spirals. This allows you to feel early on when a technique is done correctly or incorrectly.

That said, I must note that learning sabaki, like everything else in life, also involves a caveat. Grasping sabaki to the point at which you're capable of using it in a match requires plenty of patience, sincerity and humility. In many circles, the hallmark of doing full-contact karate is the ability to endure physical punishment from an opponent and persevere despite normal human limitations. In the art my father created and in sabaki, we wish to honor and strengthen this fighting spirit, but at the same time we recognize our limitations and seek ways to use our unique talents to grow physically and mentally.

The following principles and techniques will illustrate the enshin expression of sabaki.

Kyushu and Kuzushi

Grappling Sabaki

The fundamental sabaki concept of kyushu means "to absorb the oncoming force of an opponent." If your adversary launches a strike with a given amount of energy, you should plan on absorbing precisely that amount of energy so it's canceled out. Beyond that, kyushu enables the person who's "listening" more intently to then direct the flow of the confrontation as he or she sees fit.

This leads us to the next concept: kuzushi. It means "to borrow the energy of the opponent to destabilize his structure or balance or both." Kuzushi essentially overloads his central nervous system, giving it the message that to regain balance, the body must create an imbalance structurally to "catch" itself.

In sabaki, we can apply the concepts of kyushu and kuzushi while standing or on the ground. On the ground, kuzushi can be used to disrupt a person's balance and create entry points that are useful for attacking overextended limbs. Many times, that limb is overextended because it's being used to regain balance or to avoid pressure.

See Techniques 1 and 2. in the December/January 2021 Issue

Positioning and LeverageIn sabaki, achieving proper positioning relative to your opponent is critical. Sabaki teaches you to seek positioning that puts your maximum force against your opponent's minimum force. The footwork and angles ideally put you in a position from which you know more about him and he knows less about you. This is similar to what unfolds when predatory animals hunt their prey.

The ideal position to be in, according to sabaki, is the person's blind spot. That enables you to use kuzushi to redirect the opponent so you're facing him and he isn't facing you.

The most advantageous blind spot you can achieve is to get to your opponent's back. This opens the door for you to use leverage — both physically and with respect to timing. When he's in an unbalanced position, you have a choice: Strike him or take him down with a throw or sweep. These choices give you leverage as he tries to regain balance and structure — but you are a half beat ahead of him. For you, there's an advantage and a disadvantage associated with this.

Advantage: A person wastes energy because of the anxiety that accompanies being in a bad position. Anxiety breeds panic, which leads him to make mistakes.

Disadvantage: When a person panics, he moves more erratically. If you choose not to strike him, you must control his range of movement using "wedges." This often entails sensing where his center of gravity is — in essence, it's a problem of martial geometry.

See Techniques 3 and 4. in the December/January 2021 Issue

Power From Sensitivity

Arm bar

The power and fluidity inherent in sabaki arise from using the body's fascia and the alignment of its bones. In case you're not familiar: Fascia is neither a New Age term nor one that's found only in martial arts. It refers to the tough tissue that encloses and stabilizes muscles, and it plays a role in all physical movements, often making them appear effortless.

In martial arts, the fascia helps configure the body like a drum. The bones mirror the wood or metal frame, and the fascia is like the skin. When the bones and the connective tissue become connected from head to toe, they facilitate an elastic strength that has both sensitivity and power. It takes effort to make these two qualities go hand in hand. If you move in a state of muscular contraction, your mental space also gets bound up in that tension, which makes it more challenging to feel your opponent's intention in a grappling situation. In a striking situation, that tension opposes your release of power.

The sabaki principle of not relying on the use of brute strength is related to two of Jigoro Kano's judo adages: maximum efficiency and mutual benefit. (Both my father and I started in judo before taking up karate.)• Maximum efficiency: The fascia is avascular. That means it functions without the need of oxygenated blood. This translates to more endurance at a lower rate of perceived exertion. The strength of the fascia is exponentially greater than that of any isolated muscle tissue. With practice, you can "read" the fascia and thus sense your opponent's movements.

See Technique 5 and its options. in the December/January 2021 Issue

Mutual benefit: This term refers to the ability for both parties to derive benefit from training regardless of either person's size or strength. It's enlightening to watch my father spar during our children's class. He moves at 100-percent capacity yet matches each child's ability so he or she won't get hurt. Often, training with brute strength becomes a glass ceiling: You either get hurt while practicing with someone who uses too much force or you're limited in the number of people you can practice with. The mutual-benefit mindset is a foundation the instructor must convey to students. In part, that's because to learn sabaki effectively, you and your partners must set aside your egos and be sincere in your efforts to preserve the art while helping each other grow.

See Conditioning Drill. in the December/January 2021 Issuein the December/January 2021 Issue

Multiple Options

One of the powerful benefits of sabaki is its ability to give you choices in a given scenario. My father was introduced to the principle of sabaki by his teacher Hideyuki Ashihara. At one point, Ashihara was tasked with developing a system of real karate that could be employed by the police force in Yawatahama, Japan, where my father grew up. My father further cultivated the principle in an effort to revolutionize the tournament aspect of full-contact fighting by incorporating three-second grabs, throws, sweeps and positioning.

The unique positioning taught in sabaki affords you a better chance against multiple attackers because you're changing your own blind spot, and that limits the angles that are available to multiple attackers. With more than one adversary, the concept of kime, or a strike that incapacitates the opponent, is very important. If you hold someone down or try to effect a submission in a situation with multiple assailants, it's dangerous. However, if the engagement is one-on-one like in a competition or an isolated encounter, newaza is effective. Having the ability to choose your response depending on the scenario offers a level of confidence that's rooted in discipline. For law enforcement, in particular, this is valuable because situations can be de-escalated and defused with control that stems not from using force but from listening and responding.

Kime is important in another way. It signifies a samurai delivering the final sword strike that kills the opponent. In modern times, the delivery of such a move carries with it consequences because after the fact, no one can gauge the mercy or motivation behind the strike. In our society, if you strike someone, no matter how hard, and he falls and get hurts, there's potential liability. That's why, in a self-defense situation, it's useful to have multiple options.

To foster the notion that having options is good, future iterations of the Sabaki Challenge will permit athletes to use newaza and continue fighting on the ground if they so desire. This idea, the brainchild of my father, will ensure that the Sabaki Challenge continues to set the standard for full-contact karate in the United States.

The new rules are designed not only to preserve the dignity of competitors but also to showcase the technically correct implementation of sabaki. As such, there will be no pads or gloves. Full-contact hand strikes to the body and head while standing are permitted. Punches and knees to the head are prohibited. Grabbing (one side of the body) while standing for up to three seconds is allowed. Ground fighting is allowed after a fighter goes down as long as the takedown, throw or sweep is legal. No striking is permitted while on the ground. A fight is won by knockout, submission or points.

Clearly, the evolution of the Sabaki Challenge will be bolstered by the inclusion of rules that encourage the use of sabaki. It promises to make the competition and the art of enshin karate more exciting — and more useful for life in the 21st century.

Mike Ninomiya is a four-time Sabaki Challenge world champion. He has an eighth-degree black belt in enshin karate and is the art's vice grandmaster. In addition to martial arts, he teaches meditation, energy work and yin yoga. For information about his retreats, visit mikeninomiya.com. For information about enshin karate, visit enshin.com.

Sabaki Is the Subject of a New Online Course From Black Belt!

Sabaki online course

If you prefer to learn your fighting moves via video as opposed to the written word, you're in luck. Mike Ninomiya, son of Joko Ninomiya, founder of the Sabaki Challenge, recently teamed up with Black Belt to make a course titled Sabaki Fighting Method: How to Be More Effective in Competition and Combat.

The curriculum includes both stand-up and ground fighting, and it is grouped into sections geared for beginners, intermediate students and advanced practitioners. Watch as Ninomiya, an eighth-degree black belt, teaches kyushu, kuzushi, newaza and all the techniques you've come to expect from full-contact karate, enshin style. shop.blackbeltmag.com

That a director of my city's opera company would call me seemed a little odd. There are probably some monkeys who know more about opera than I do. But the director was inviting me to lunch, so of course I went.

It turned out the company was producing a performance of Madame Butterfly, the Puccini opera that tells the story of a doomed love between a French military officer and a geisha in early 19th-century Japan. The opera has come under fire for its stereotyped, utterly fanciful depictions of Japanese culture. The local company was trying to anticipate such criticism, and the director asked me, since I serve on the board of some organizations related to Japanese culture, what I thought.
Keep Reading Show less
Apologies in advance for the title if it gives impressions that this is going to be all that poetic. It's not this presentation that is all that literary, but something else. Haikus and pentameter aside, MMA has moments that are nothing less than poetic on a pretty astral level. Not long ago, irony at the nauseating level (unless you are a psychopath) happened when former UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman broke his leg on Uriah Hall's leg in an eerily similar way as the other former champ Anderson Silva did on Chris's in their title rematch. If you know anything at all about MMA and did not know this story, you have to have been living under a rock. Save your energy and do not go look at pictures of either event as it is nightmare material.
Keep Reading Show less

Dr. Craig's Martial Arts Movie Lounge

Have you ever watched a film that was just so amazing that when the sequel came out, your mind started developing great expectations and that it would be a pip, which has nothing to do with a Charles Dicken's novel, yet a movie that could be a real humdinger?

In 2017, one of the most engaging and exciting elements of the Sammo Hung and Vincent Zhao starring God of War is that it was a remake of Jimmy Wang Yu's classic kung fu flick Beach of the War Gods (BWG; 1973). This gave me the perfect opportunity to see how a film on the same subject was handled by two Chinese filmmaking eras 44 years apart and how the fight choreography was used to tell the hero's story.

Keep Reading Show less