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Tau's picture
Considering Wrist Grabs in Karate and Aikido

We've come a long way since Iain first presented his ideas on Bunkai. I think things are being questioned much more which as long as this questioning is done in a positive spirit that can only be a good thing. Whay do I mention this?

Well, I've always had a problem with Bunkai against isolated wrist grabs. Indeed I raise this problem in my own recent Bunkai study of Heian Yondan. Recently Iain addressed this in a video on Heian Godan where his perception is that wrist grabs should not be considered an isolated attack. It just doesn't happen. Actually, that's not true. It rarely happens. Professionally I've had a couple of people seize my wrist in order to get my attention. I happen to not feel this is appropriate but I'm glad that I've recognised these "attacks" as being relatively benign and have acted accordingly. I digress but I just to emphasise that "never" is not accurate. 

In Iain's recent video he talked about how, in his perception, wrist grabs are usually actually responses to something that tori is doing. For example tori sees an opening to attack the eyes and uke grabs the wrist to prevent this or uke is stripping away a grab on the part of tori. Iain's drills start from the perspective of tori's attempts at technique being arrested.

So, why do I raise this?

Those that know me know that I love Aikido as nothing else feels quite like it. Yet in the 21st century I do not most Aikido in much regard from a pragmatic perspective. I should add that there is very good pragmatic Aikido out there, but it's rare... and if I'm honest no fun!

Aikido is descended from Japanese feudal systems. Yes, it''s a 20th century art developed long past the feudal era and some 50 years after the wearing of swords in public was banned. But this is where is traces it's roots to. Indeed Aikido is "the art of the sword, without a sword" and the study of swordsmanship alongside Aikido is, I feel, a great compliment to the art. In Aikido, most wrist grabs are accepted as being Uke's attempt at arresting tori's use of the sword by seizing the wrist reaching for the sword.

Aspects of Karate are desended from the same era. Iain talks about movements that grab the topknot. Funakoshi, in Karate-Do My Way of Life describes the forced removal of the topknot in Okinawa.

What I'm getting to, via a long route, is the question of if it's conceivable that some wrist grabs found in Karate are actually sword-arrests as seen in Aikido? If so then this sits fine with me as long as we identify that this is the case. If not then I'm going to continue to question wrist grabs, accepting that there are asnswers there... mostly.

ky0han's picture

Hi Tau,

considering the fact, that Karate was heavily influenced by the japanese Jigen Ryu system which was famous for their swordsmenship I would say it is conceivable.

There is a story about Asato Anko being so confident in his skills that he faced an opponent armed with a sword with his bare hands, defeating him. There is the story of Matsumora Kosaku loosing a thumb in an altercation with a samurai disarming him with a wet towel throwing the sword and his cut off thumb into the river Asato.

There is Funakoshi showing Tachi Dori - catching the sword - in his book "Karate Do Kyohan".

So methods for engaging a sword in a fight with nothing but the bare hands were defenitely taught. Sword arrests are part of those methods I think. So dealing with it on the other hand is also a needed skill.

Iains theory of "entry techniques" like choking, eye poking or groin grabs are more relevant to the modern days. So when I want someone to grab my hand I force him to do so by doing one of the above mentioned actions but this is something I do in the middle of a fight not at the beginning. There I just would get rid of the grip and deal with it according to the level of endangerment.

Regards Holger

Tau's picture


That all makes perfect sense. Thanks. And I agree with your points on adaptation to modern threats and not instigating the physical aspect of confrontation by these methods. Much ad I like putting my thumb into the zygoma (but not the eye) there are much better methods of pre-emption out there. 

In terms of hypothetical sword defences, Aikido and Eskrima give some lovely disarms if not wholly practical. There's a lot to be said for hitting the head of swordsman hard and often!

deltabluesman's picture

I will just toss my own thoughts into this.  I agree with both of you, but I do have a slightly different perspective on this matter.  I think that even the isolated wrist grab is a serious threat that martial artists should address in their training.

To be fair, every single martial artist (of any kind) that I have ever met has been able to demonstrate at least one or two defenses against wrist grabs.  These are usually preceded with apologetic explanations of how they are not very useful, or how they only matter for children.  But some martial artists heed this advice too closely and never develop any actual skill in defending wrist grabs.  (I was guilty of this for a long time.)  I am thinking of the karateka who flawlessly demonstrates the wrist lock on everyone in the class until one person decides to clamp down with a kung-fu death grip, rendering the technique unworkable.  (I suppose this would also tie into the non-cooperative uke thread from a short while back.)

Although the wrist-grab may be rare in certain contexts, it warrants consideration.  For example:  the athletic individual who preemptively grabs the wrist, pulls the target off-balance, and starts to strike.  Alternatively, an individual who naturally grabs the wrist to keep the martial artist from fleeing the encounter.  Perhaps these are uncommon, but not so much that they should be ignored.  Grabbing the wrist and striking is very intuitive, after all.  And even an experienced martial artist could mistakenly attempt to flee a fight too soon (a major but plausible mistake).

Admittedly, these quick examples are not isolated in the same sense of the word you were using earlier, and so I would think we are discussing different contexts.   Practically speaking, it is really irrelevant whether you teach wrist grabs in the context of a failed entry technique or whether you teach them alone—all that matters is the development of practical skill. 

In my experience, adding a weapon of any sort (knife, stick, sword, gun, etc.) dramatically increases the frequency of wrist grabs.  So it would make sense that wrist grabs would be even more common in an environment where swords were used.  But I am saying that even if there were no weapons at all, the wrist grab would still be a part of my training. 

Just my two cents on the issue!  

(Edited for clarity.)

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I have never liked training against wrist grabs much.

However, ultimately for me it doesn't matter whether it's a wrist grab, punch, headlock attempt or whatever, your stuff has to function against all of those and more to be truly effective. So, the question isn't really how to make wrist grabs effective in training, but (at least from a Karate standpoint) to do bunkai etc. in such a way that the principles can be successful regardless of "type" of attack.

And if your opponent is dumb enough to come up and stand there after grabbing a wrist with one had, all the better I guess!

One area where wrist grabs are interesting to think about in terms of escape is for women and children, where a huge deficit of size and strength might actually make them more effective as a tpye of restraint.

Really though, if you know how to slip out towards the thumb, then you pretty much know all you need to know about isolated wrist grabs IMO.

I do Jujutsu in addition to Karate, and I have to say that from a practical perspective, Jujutsu goes really overboard with this kind of thing, i'm guessing owing to the fact that part of it's history is techniques of restraint for essentially law enforcement personnel, some of which are still taught!. I think you have to keep the material in context to make any sense of it..especially when you are thinking about Karate for civilian self-defense versus something else, in this environment imho stuff like wristlocks can be on the map..but just barely, you need a basic working knowledge of them and that's it.

Actual limb entanglement or arm briding is a whole different deal and it seems more central, but the "grab your wrist while doing nothing else and not being close" scenario has always seemed very out of place to me.