The traditional training method of tegumi and kumite, are closely related: “kumi-te” is actually the term “te-gumi” backwards where the syllable “gu” turned into “ku.”

From the 1920s until today, basically all Okinawan karate-jutsu masters developed their kumite exercises, i.e., a set of “receive and give” moves, to help students developing the basic technical skills needed to fight an attacking adversary. Since fighting is based on a group of fundamental principles and on the parameters of the human body, these concepts created by different masters show similarities, which can easily be spotted when comparing some classic sets, e.g., Motobu Choki Sensei’s twenty drills (Motobu 2020, p. 112-149) and the ones in Shorin Ryu, for instance, in Kyan Sensei’s Seibukan (Shimabukuro/Smith 2020, p. 351ff), or in Nagamine Sensei’s Matsubayashi Ryu (Nagamine 1976, p. 246ff), or in Nakazato Sensei’s Kobayashi Ryu, which I practice.

Kumite is trained in its three forms of:

(a) Ippon kumite in karate-jutsu teaches concepts to successfully interrupt attacks, create damage, and thus prevent opponents from continuing their attack. Hence, ippon kumite is not just a drill to learn techniques, which, as Sensei Dan Smith, 9th Dan Shorin Ryu Seibukan pointed out to me, is a wide- spread misconception about ippon kumite in modern karate practice; it rather is a way to end a fight.

(b) Renzoku or yakusoku kumite are pre-arranged, scenario-based partner drills. This training approach did not exist until the 1970s. Solely using this form of training to prepare oneself for self-defense carries the risk of developing a mindset of impractical attack scenarios, of rules and of compliant training partners. Such practices alone do not achieve their goal of self-defense.

(c) Jiyu kumite is often called free fighting; today the fighters may wear more or less protective gear as introduced in Japanese karatedo; in the old days Okinawans did not, but there were and there are guidelines for not injuring the partner.

After gaining familiarity with the basic techniques of fighting and after having reached a reasonably good understanding of timing and distance, students may move toward training sets and exercises beyond yakusoku kumite that more closely resemble real combat, where moves are executed with full or with reduced speed and power; with full contact, controlled contact, or without contact, but with less or no restriction of target areas or of techniques used. In these combat versions of classic training techniques, which are no longer common in most of today’s karatedo practice, tegumi and kumite are executed as “free fighting” ―albeit with specific rules to avoid injuries, but without all the limiting restrictions of sports-karate (see Analysis of Genuine Karate Volume 1, p. 86ff).

Hence, Okinawans did test their combative skills before competitions in Japan were developed. They could participate on an individual basis in a real fight as a challenge match (kakedameshi). The aim of these matches was for students to find their own weakness so that they could improve their art. The better fighter paced himself to the other person’s level, and neither of the fighters tried to deliberately injury the other one (Swennen 2009, p. 30). On the master level, however, challenge fights could be serious combat, in rare cases fought to the bitter end. In addition, many karateka tested their skills—or were forced to prove their skills—outside the dojo, e.g., in nightlife scenarios or in encounters with criminals. Stories of such fights involving Matsumura Sensei, Itosu Sensei, Asato Sensei, and Motobu Sensei were orally handed down.

As mentioned, kata and its application in kumite were once an inseparable unit. We find this unity today in traditional karate-jutsu, not just in traditional tegumi/kumite, but in other modern applications too; for example, in 10th Dan Shorin Ryu Shorinkan Yamashita Tadashi Sensei’s fighting system Suikendo, one of today’s most advanced karate-jutsu combat systems. Yamashita Tadashi Sensei used the old ways of kata―Kihon, Naihanchi, Passai, Kusanku―and modernized the teaching of their applications by creating an “endless” sequence of moves he calls “fists flowing like water.”

Two-Person Kumite

In training sessions, I had the privilege to attend with Sensei Yamashita himself and with other sensei of Yamashita International Budo Association, the traditional training method of two-person kumite was exclusively used to practice the application of offensive and defensive kata moves in their most realistic combat simulation possible.

This training setting matches―in my understanding―some of the classic ways of tegumi, where the opponents faced each other with their forearms crossed and where, after the “start” command was given, the adversaries challenged and fought each other by trying to find an opening and successfully apply a kata move while using hard-style, short movements. In this way, tegumi/kumite, the ancient two-person-training method, embodies the traditional way to use kata concepts in fighting and to hone their applications.

“The closer a competition format is to a real fight, the more dangerous it becomes. The safer the competition is, the further it distances itself from actual combat. There is always a trade- off between safety and realism” (Swennen 2009, p. 25). Karate was introduced from Okinawa to the mainland mostly to Japanese university students. These young men preferred to challenge each other instead of just training kata and bunkai and thus initiated karate’s transformation from a martial art into a sport with light contact rules on the Japanese mainland. In contrast, the Okinawans continued training karate as a martial art.

The first national competition for students was held in November 1957, where twenty- nine universities participated. Then, in 1964, the Japanese Karate Federation was established and confirmed karate’s status as a sport with light contact (sundome) rules. The Okinawans saw this format of competition some years later for the first time, when they were allowed to travel freely to the Japanese mainland. Hence, most Okinawans were not exposed to the idea of organizing competitions in a sparring format before the 1970s. “The new sundome competitions differed substantially from the old kakedameshi, as the karateka were not allowed to really hit each other anymore and the referees decided who wins, often in a confusing matter. The Okinawans initially resisted and criticized the new competition format strongly, but succumbed after a while and applied the new rules”.

When looking at the rules and regulations of sports-karate, one may assume that the traditional ways are preserved in its kumite discipline. Isn’t a score awarded when a technique is performed to an allowed target area with a) good form, b) sporting attitude, c) vigorous application, d) awareness/zanshin, e) good timing, and f) correct distance (WKF 2020, p. 11). This sounds like combat-adequate technique application, although the allowed target areas, or scoring areas, are limited to a) head, b) face, c) neck, d) abdomen, e) chest, f) back, and g) side.

Making the Best Impression Counts

A closer look, however, reveals that in sports-karate the entire scoring system is based on creating illusions instead of factual applications. It’s based on the fact that athletes create an impression; hence the reality of fighting may be better approxmiated in other combat sports like boxing or mixed martial arts. For instance, whereas in karate-jutsu “good” or “correct” is easily validated as “most effective” through the impact a move creates, there is no option to validate “good form,” “good timing,” or “correct distance” in sports-karate kumite other than to compare it to an ideal picture of an athletic dance where correctness is defined by the Japanese karate associations as a specific position. The athletes have to create the impression of zanshin (relaxed alertness); they have to create the impression of vigorously hitting―as soon as they would actually hit more or less vigorously, they are disqualified. Hence, in competitions, the winner is not always the better fighter, but it is the one who makes the best impression.56

Creating impressions instead of actually fighting allows the flimsy stances/positions to be witnessed in sports-karate kumite, which are quite different to the solid, grounded, toe-grabbing basis necessary to deliver a fight-ending technique in karate-jutsu. But when it is outlawed to damage an opponent, speedy, fencing moves with tagging contact are needed to create the impression of hitting hard, instead of actually hitting hard. Hence, again, impressions replace impact.

And last but not least, when certain target areas are outlawed, new and modified techniques, like high kicks and roundhouse kicks, need to be developed to create the impression of better attacking the allowed and high-scored target areas, which, however, ends up in combat- wise ridiculous moves, and which completely change the ancient art.

56 As shown by the example from the 2020 Olympics in Saudi Arabia of Tareg Hamedi, who delivered a head kick with good stance and timing but knocked out his Iranian opponent Sajad Ganjzadeh during the +75kg men’s kumite final. He was disqualified and received the silver medal, whereas his knocked-out opponent was awarded gold.

The above is an excerpt from Analysis of Genuine Karate 2: Sociocultural Development, Commercialization and Loss of Essential Knowledge by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., Publication Date July 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399244.