The “Ippon” Myth of Karate 

As every Shotokan practitioner seems to know, there is a mystical issue of fighting causing a lot of trouble while mastering Karate: the ippon (lit. “one full point”). Borrowed from the tournament rules of Kendo, the ippon marks the point in a bout where the ”one” strike is placed, finishing the fight with the assumed “death” of the opponent who is left with no possibility to block, deflect or counter.

Since it is not easy to achieve this perfect result, synonyms and descriptions arose to get a grasp on this more mystified institution of gendai budo (contemporary martial arts). Therefore the ippon symbolizes a deadly, perfect technique with a presumed proper unity of mind and body that is so much appreciated as a symbol of zen or Karate as a vivid form of zen. Of course, the discourse on the “sportification” of budo states that there can’t be an ippon any more with the decay of a “true budo” in today’s tournament fighting. Away from “true budo”, and wether zen is really an essential core point of martial arts: With the aspect of polishing one’s techniques and movement towards perfection, what is the benefit of ippon? Is it an essential part of budo (the martial arts)?

Dealing with swords one will find out that there is apparently a good chance to kill an opponent with one blow. Indeed, all schools of batto (drawing the sword and simultaniously delivering the first cut) work towards this rather economic (not wasting movements) approach. Still an idealized form of figthing, a sword could without any doubt kill you with one strike to a lethal area as the head or the armpit, letting the opponent bleeding to death immediately. On the other hand, as experiments during WW II showed, this is not valid for Karate blows (Wittwer 2007: 162 f.). Therefore, the ippon in Karate remains a hardly achievable produce of technique, tactics and psychology, probably being nothing more than a narration in present day Karate.

I came across a video of Inoue Yoshihiko, a highly respected Kendo teacher and philosopher, explaining the difference of ippon and yukodatotsu (lit. “a strike with effect”) in Kendo. While yukodatotsu is an effective technique with consideration of one’s own safety – e.g. leaving room for parrying possible counterattacks while attacking – ippon discards any consideration of the opponent striking back. According to Inoue ippon comes more from a mental domination over the opponent than a technical superiority. With an ippon, there would be no need for a blow any more, since the attacker is left in a state of unability to act. This is called muto (lit. “no sword”), meaning that a fight could be decided without any exchange of technique at all (see video below).

Inoue’s explanations revive the consideration of a functioning ippon-like concept in Karate. Since Ushiro Kenji, Arakaki Kiyoshi and many others have written about this concept, which is now being located outside the present day tournament Karate, remaining a high-end matter of understanding Karate, linked to the concepts of ki and a somatic or biomechanical approach to movement. Not because it was so mystical but not a matter of sports-based understanding of movement compared to the much more complex nature of Karate as a martial art. Since Inoue critizises yukodatotsu being the rule rather than the exception in Kendo, the same idea may arise regarding today’s Karate bouts with their “6:0” ideal of winning, meaning six waza-ari (half points, lit. “technique is there”) as a technical k.o., thus completely discarding the idea of ippon, expelling muto from the Karate syllabus.

Deciding which is the appropriate idea of ippon – a mere tournament scoring or the visible expression of the muto concept – in your Karate depends as usual on the Karate you favour and practise. We should not forget that at present six waza-ari equal three ippon, leading to winning a world championship bout. And this technical victory is valid within institutional settings without involving the idea of muto. But: Is winning without muto still budo?

Recommended reading:

Arakaki Kiyoshi (2003): The Secrets of Okinawan Karate: Essence and Techniques, Kodansha (Tokyo).

Ushiro Kenji (2008): Karate and Ki – The Origin of Ki – The Depth of Thought, Aiki-News (Sagamihara, Japan).

Wittwer, Henning (2007): Shotokan – überlieferte Texte & historische Untersuchungen, Bd. 1, eigene Verlegung (Niesky).