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Secrets Of The Old Okinawan Fist

by Victor Smith


To 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 feel right.

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."

Historical Documentation

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 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 thumb."

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." (4)

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 I've seen.

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 "Tote-Jitsu."

(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.

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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 and is Associate Editor of Professionally he is a business analyst, but also enjoys writing ficton for the Destroyer Universe.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

karate, fist, Gichen Funakoshi, Shorei, tawkwondo, Shuri, kung fu

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