Secrets Of The Old Okinawan Fist
by Victor Smith
most it looks odd, or strange at best - a fist with one finger kept
straight. Most of us in karate or other martial arts were taught to
form a basic closed fist. But Gichen Funakoshi and a number of old karate
masters used this method.
Some say this method of forming a fist was practiced in old Shuri,
the capital city of Okinawa. Others say it came from Naha (a port city
near Shuri). It also might just be an alternative, an old method of
forming an advanced fist. Whatever its origin, however, this method
of forming a fist presents the reader with a unique perspective, something
to be considered, tested and/or practiced.
The Alternative Fist
Where the normal fist folds all four fingers back and presses the thumb
across the index and middle finger, the alternative fist folds the last
three fingers back while the index finger doesn't fold closed. Instead
it lays straight across the base of the thumb while the thumb still
presses across the index and middle finger.
Many years ago I noticed that Gichin Funakoshi's (considered by many
the father of Japanese Karate and founder of Shotokan) "Karate-Do
Kyohan" illustrated both manners of fist construction. A number
of years later John Hamilton, a Senior Shorin Ryu instructor of the
Shorin No Tora Dojo in Pittsburgh, Pa, wrote the most extensive article
I've seen on this topic in Bujin magazine. The article was "Seiken
Tsuki" in the Winter 1982-1983 issue.
My Experience And Practice
I had already studied Shotokan karate for ten years when I was first
introduced to the alternative fist formation. The instructor I trained
with explained his family tradition changed the fist formation at 3rd
degree black into the alternate fist. Their reason was the most common
folded fist was a stronger fist for the last two fingers of the hand.
Prior to 3rd degree they felt the strength of the four folded fingers
made striking safer to those students. But by 3rd degree, they felt
the student should be able to strike exactly as intended, and by shifting
to the alternate fist, a tighter lock on the first two knuckles delivered
a stronger strike. The skill of the karate-ka would compensate for the
weaker last two knuckles.
The manner in which they taught the alternate fist formation quickly
made me realize it was a stronger fist. The first several weeks do feel
very strange, but once the basics of its formation were mastered, the
difference is so dramatic that the former fist construction just doesn't
Feelings of course aren't necessarily objective reasons for change.
In practice I've seen very strong strikes with the folded fist, the
vertical fist, and the straight index finger fist. Thus I cannot readily
dismiss any fist formation used correctly as lesser than another.
Before I get to the manner in which I was taught to form this fist,
I'd like to discuss the merit of this alternate fist construction being
the "Older Fist."
The first documented example of this alternative fist (see the photo
that begins this article) is seen in Gichin Funakoshi's 1925 book "Rentan
Goshin Karate Jutsu." The book is now translated into English and
is now available from several publishers. (1)
This fist was also included in Funakoshi's 1935 book "Karate Do
Koyan," and all its subsequent re-publications.
Mizuho Mutsu (Okinawan karate pioneer who moved to Hawaii in 1933 and
taught, later moving back to Japan to teach at the Imperial University's
karate study club) also documented this fist in his 1933 text "Toudi
Kempo." These illustrations from Mutsu's book compare the alternative
fist (left) with the traditional karate fist (right).
Mutsu Sensei was trained under Gichin Funakoshi, but also visited Okinawa
for his own studies with various instructors. Joe Swift (the karate
historian and author who is Associate Editor at FightingArts.com) has
assisted me by translating that section of this book, in which Mutsu
states the regular closed fist is used in the Naha area, where the straight
finger fist is used in the Shuri area. (2)
Others, however, believe the opposite and trace this fist to Naha.,
not Shuri. (3)
One of Funakoshi's students, Masatoshi Nakayama (the Japanese karate
master and well known author who was Chief Instructor of the Japan Karate
Association), in his 1966 work "Dynamic Karate" (published
by Kodansha), states:
"This method of making a fist was widely used until about 30
years ago, but few karateists employ it today. It declined in popularity
because, although the index and middle finger form a tight ball, the
little finger tends to be quite loose. Also, it is initially somewhat
difficult to make a fist this way. However, if one becomes accustomed
to this method the fist can be quickly formed. Both methods of making
a fist are useful, and will result in effective methods."
The 1979 Contemporary publication of Hidy Ochiai's (the Japanese born
karate master, tournament champion, author, and head of Washin Ryu karate)
"The Essence Of Self-Defense," demonstrates it as a striking
technique (but with no additional commentary).
The 1982-1083 Winter issue of "The Bujin" magazine contained
the article "Seiken Tsuki" by John Hamilton of the Shorin
No Tora dojo. That article detailed how to form the fist, and discussed
the necessity of having a very tight fist.
Hamilton sensei wrote:
"The fist formation most commonly encountered, with four fingers
clamped by the thumb, is really a simplification originated for beginners.
The 'Proper Fist' of Karate is the balled fist formed by folding only
the bottom three fingers and clamping the index finger over with the
He also described the fist with the thumb clenching the first finger
as similar to how many people clench the bo (wooden staff).
Almost everything else I've discovered falls into the realm of oral
transmission. It was in that manner its use in Shotokan (founder by
Funakoshi) that was originally passed to me. It is likely that Funakoshi
Sensei's original fist formation came from Okinawa and his original
training. But it has taken quite a bit of research to try and locate
where this fist falls in Okinawa's history.
As I am primarily an Isshinryu Karate-ka, and we rely on the vertical
fist, there would not be a tradition of this fist within Isshinryu.
But one of my seniors, Sherman Harill of Carson City, Iowa, related
to me one evening when he was assisting Tatsuo Shimabuku (the karate
master and founder of Issinryu karate) close the dojo in Agena, Okinawa
in 1960, Shimabuku Sensei began to describe four other main Okinawan
karate traditions to him. Among striking styles, he demonstrated the
fist we're discussing.
In addition to Hamilton Sensei's Shorin Ryu lineage, I have been told
the Matsumura Seito group (karate practitioners whose teachings are
linked to Hohan Soken based on the teachings of Bushi Matsumura) also
uses this fist construction.
Phillip Koeppel, a senior American karateka (founder of U.S. Karate-Do
Kai), also recounts that when he was transferred to Hawaii in 1958 he
started training in Sensei Adriano Emperado's dojo in Wahiawa. "This
is where I ran into the straight index finger closed under the thumb.
When I asked about it there, Senseis Tony Ramos, Vern Tokomoto and Jerry
Martin all stated that it gave a better spread to first two knuckles
that you struck with. This was the standard fist for all application
in his dojo at that time."
But there is also another more esoteric explanation for this alternative
fist. Koeppel Explains:
"Patrick McCarthy (the well known karate author and historian)
spend about a week in my dojo in 1997. I noticed he used this type
of fist from time to time. We talked about it. He stated that it was
not a "Shorei" fist but an application to help form a cupping
palm..... You will notice when you keep the index finger straight
and really squeeze with the thumb the palm of the had cups."
Koeppel then drew a parallel with one form of the kata Tensho where
the palm of the pushing hand (shotei) is cupped for energy release.
How to Form the Fist
I've discussed this fist formation with many individuals. I found some
who use and teach it. I've also found those who feel it isn't a practical
fist, and those who fully discourage its use.
I wonder if part of the problem rests in the manner in which the fist
is formed. On the whole it seems awkward and difficult to do quickly.
While it can be corrected with right practice, the manner in which the
fist is formed seems to be the most important detail to get started.
Rather than discuss various methods, I will explain the one I studied,
which seems to be the fastest (and strongest) method to form the fist
This manner of forming the fist involves rolling the fingers closed
beginning with the little finger, then the ring finger and the middle
finger until finally the index finger is laid straight down on the base
of the thumb. Then the thumb is laid across the index finger.
It took me about one week of practice to learn how to roll the fingers
closed, but once you get over the newness of this fist formation, you'll
discover you can roll it closed very quickly. Once formed you will discover
how a stronger arch is formed across your fist, focusing the compactness
over the lead two knuckles.
The rest is practice.
As I was taught, this is not the best way for beginners to strike,
as the lack of strength in the last two fingers will weaken a strike
if you hit incorrectly.
In the same manner, if you decide to try this type of alternative fist,
you need to totally devote yourself to the project. You need to take
about a month, accepting awkwardness and some difficulty until you become
accustomed to it.
If after that time you have reservations, you've given it a fair chance
to work, so it would be appropriate to return to your previous fist.
Many thanks to Dr. Paul Harper for the photographs
of my hand making the fist.
(1) English translations of this book are published
by Kodansha International as "Karate Jutsu: The Original Teachings
of Master Funakoshi," and by Masters Publications under the name
(2) It is my belief that the continued reference
to the 'Shuri' fist has to come from Funakoshi. Mutsu quoted it (and
he had studied with Funakoshi) and had actually been in Hawaii (perhaps
the source for Kajukenbo's (an eclectic art combining karate, judo,
jujutsu kenpo and the bo) use of it, as he had his new book with him.
(3) Koeppel, founder of the United States Karate-Do
Kai, Koeppel noted that R.A. Trias Sensei (the American karate Pioneer
and founder of the U.S. Karate Association) had told him that this type
of fist was called a "Shorei" fist -- the term "Shorei"
being linked to Naha te, ti , and de. He noted, however that the Goju
people do not use this type of fist.
(4) This paragraph has been edited for brevity.
About The Author:
Victor Smith is a respected teacher of Isshinryu karate (6th degree
black belt) and tai chi chuan with over 26 years of training in Japanese,
Korean and Chinese martial arts. His training also includes aikido,
kobudo, tae kwon do, tang so do moo duk kwan, goju ryu, uechi ryu,
sutrisno shotokan, tjimande, goshin jutsu, shorin ryu honda katsu,
sil lum (northern Shaolin), tai tong long (northern mantis), pai lum
(white dragon), and ying jow pai (eagle claw). Over the last few years
he has begun writing on, researching and documenting his studies and
experiences. He is the founder of the martial arts website FunkyDragon.com/bushi
and is Associate Editor of FightingArts.com. Professionally he is
a business analyst, but also enjoys writing ficton for the Destroyer