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Yakusoku Kumite

Yakusoku (promise) kumite is a prearranged sequence between two students. One student will usually attack, and the other will defend. Sometimes there is an exchange of attacks and defenses. But the main point is that the sequence is prearranged -- each student knows what he will do and what his partner will do.

Many schools have such patterns. The best example is probably with sets designed by Sensei Choki Motobu (the Motobu Choki Juni Hon Kumite). I have practiced various forms myself and often make informal patterns for my students.

But there can be a concern that prearranged sequences teach students how not to hit each other rather than how to properly defend. My good friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata, often mentions this. In his view, yakusoku kumite does not teach a student how to actually fight.

You might have seen this yourself. Let's say that a student is supposed to throw a punch to his partner's head and that the partner is supposed to execute a high block (jodan uke). After a while, you might notice that the attacker is actually punching over his partner's head, and the partner is blocking where he knows that the punch will be. The attacker is not really attacking and the defender is not really defending. Even within the prearranged sequence, there is no feeling of reality. The attacker is punching to miss and the defender is blocking a punch that would have never hit him!

It all becomes a pretty dance. Actually, audiences like this sort of thing only because they do not really understand Karate. To spice it up, the students might even throw in a loud, exaggerated kiai or two. Yakusoku kumite can become "performance art".

Of course, a real attacker will not punch to miss -- he will punch to hit, and you will not know where he is going to punch you. You will have to react to quickly changing circumstances. He might even punch, but pull back and redirect to another target. If you move in the robot-like manner of yakusoku kumite, you will certainly be hit.

My first Shorin-Ryu Sensei here in Hawaii was very good about this. When he hit you -- whenever he hit you -- you felt certain that he was going to actually hit you. You feared for your safety. You blocked because you knew that if you did not, you would be injured. He had a way of making all attacks real.

He could do this because he was very advanced. If beginners attempted this, someone would certainly get hurt. I feel that beginners need structured patterns to familiarize themselves with the attacking and blocking sequences. But as they advance, they need to be encouraged to move with more authenticity. They must not get lulled into sloppy, telegraphed, designed-to-miss techniques.

I believe that there is a place for yakusoku kumite. They are a basic form. But we must be aware of the risk that they can make us weaker rather than stronger, and poorer fighters rather than better ones. I agree with Nakata Sensei in this regard.

Real attackers make no promises, except that they will try their best to injure or kill you. You have to be equally committed -- actually even more so.


Charles C. Goodin