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Kyushojutsu: Basic Theory

By Joe Swift (Mushinkan Dojo, Kanazawa, Japan)

In recent years, karataka all over the world have begun to reexamine and study their classical Okinawan kata. Practical applications have been a major focus of much of this research, and one of the key components of practical applications is the science of well-placed blows to vital areas, pressure points or acupuncture points. This study is called kyushojutsu in Japanese.

The first article in this series examined the historical development of this art in Okinawa and Japan. This article continues the examination by focusing on the basic theories behind the art.

Kyushojutsu can be, and often is, explained in terms of two different medical paradigms: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Modern Western Medicine (MWM). More often than not, the two camps seem to be at odds with each other as to which approach is more valid. However, in this author's opinion, either is fine, and people can probably "pick their poison" so to speak.

What To Call The Vital Points

As much of the original theory behind kyushojutsu lies in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) paradigm, many proponents in the West use the international acu-point code as nomenclature. Others utilize terminology that is more in line with Modern Western Medicine (MWM), citing nerves and muscles, etc.Still others prefer to use different Asian medical or martial arts terms (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc.) to describe the locations of the points. Adding to the confusion is the fact that while Traditional Chinese Medicine acu-points and Western Medicine's neurological points are often the located on the same body point, other times they are not.

Kyushojutsu Understood
In Terms Of Traditional Chinese Medicine

The TCM paradigm makes use of the principles of acupuncture (qi flow, balance and interrelationships) to describe its methods and effects. Perhaps a short description of the meridians may be in order here.

Centuries ago in China, doctors discovered "passageways" of energy flow, which are called meridians (a geographical term) in English (McCarthy, 1995). There are 12 major bilateral meridians, for various internal organs. They are: Lung, Large Intestine, Stomach, Spleen, Heart, Small Intestine, Bladder, Kidneys, Pericardium, Liver, Gall Bladder, and the Triple Warmer.

In addition, there are other important meridians not associated with organs (often called Extra Meridians, or Extraordinary Vessels), two of which run vertically along the frontal and posterior center-line, the Conception Vessel (or meridian) and the Governing Vessel (or meridian), respectively.Along these meridians are numerous points or "holes" (Sato, 1996) through which energy can be transferred, or the flow of energy can be modified, through needles, fingertips, or heat in medical application, or though trauma in defensive application. These meridians can be broken down into either yin (negative) or yang (positive).

In TCM for health to be maintained, yin energy and yang energy must be balanced within the body (Sato, 1996). The medical arts such as acupuncture, shiatsu, and kikoo (qi gong in Chinese) seek to restore this balance. In contrast, kyushojutsu, in simple terms, can be viewed as attacking this balance, or the flow of energy, within the body to cause bodily damage to the opponent.

One method of using vital point or acu-point strikes employs The Five Element Theory. Some schools of TCM categorize the body's organ meridians into five separate but interrelated elements, namely Fire, Water, Earth, Metal and Wood (Sato, 1996). This is known as the Five Element Theory (FET) which is used to understand how energies related to these elements, which are associated with organs, interrelate, balance, nurture or regulate each other.

The simplistic method of utilizing the FET in kyushojutsu is to follow what is known as the Destructive Cycle. This,is done by attacking the meridians in a specific order to inflict damage upon the opponent by disrupting the flow of energy that regulates (destroys or absorbs) the succeeding or related meridian in the cycle. The Destructive Cycle can be easily remembered by the following formula: Metal cuts Wood; Wood drains nutrition from Earth; Earth absorbs Water; Water puts out Fire; and Fire melts Metal (Sato, 1996; Nakayama, 1998).

Yet another way to apply the kyushojutsu is to attack the meridians during specific time frames, known as shichen in Chinese (McCarthy,1995). This theory states that the energy and blood flow through the meridians is strongest during a specific time of day, corresponding the 12 meridians with 12 two hour periods of the old Chinese clock (McCarthy, 1995; Sato, 1996; Nakayama, 1998). The shichen are broken down into the hours of the Rat, Bull, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Bird, Dog, and Boar, respectively (McCarthy, 1995; Sato, 1996; Nakayama, 1998).

Tradtional Chinese Medicine Versus Modern Western Medicine

Theories of applying kyushojitsu through understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine are not without their detractors, most notably groups of practitioners who research kyushojutsu through Modern Western Medicine (MWM). The MWM approach is useful in providing specific, concrete, scientific examples as to why kyushojutsu works, referring to nerve plexi, tendons, muscles, etc.

Proponents of the MWM approach state that the body's neurological and other systems are well understood and verified scientifically. They point out that meridians have never been scientifically verified (to their satisfaction) and that the whole concept of qi (or chi in Chinese) flies in the face of MWM biochemical concept of the body and its systems. Furthermore, since most acu-points are the same or closely located to neurological points, MWM adherents suggest that a MWM approach makes more sense.

On the other hand, Traditional Chinese medicine appears to be more "descriptive" (for lack of a better word) in its application, preferring to cite "natural" phenomenon such as the Yin-Yang and Five Element Theory. Supporters also point out that recent scientific investigation of acupuncture has confirmed that stimulation of certain acu-points has produced certain organ and brain reactions that can not be explained in terms of Modern Western Medicine.

Even in Asian circles, however, some disagreement exists about some of the TCM theories and principles. In Japan, for example, the Yin-Yang theory has been accepted in the Eastern medical circles, but there seems to be some apprehension about the Five Element Theory. As far back as the Edo period (1603-1867), the scholar Kaihara said that the Five Element Theoryjust makes things "too complicated" (Sato, 1996).

In China, the quanfa master He Yushan stated that the striking of vital areas in terms of the shichen (12 two hour time periods) is preposterous, and later research showed that the blood flow cannot be broken down into 12 equal time periods through the 12 meridians (Jin, 1928).

Rather than bickering about which medical paradigm is more correct, however, some suggest that a better approach might be to combine the two and come up with a concise yet comprehensive explanation (Rench, 1999).

Numerology and Kyushojutsu

If things weren't confusing enough, another aspect of the study of kata and its relation to kyushojutsu is the seeming fascination with numerology. Many tradtional kata (as Gojushiho meaning 54 steps,Nijushiho or 24 steps,Seipai or 18 hands and Senseryu or 36 hands) are named after numbers.

While many seem to think this might be a Chinese phenomenon, it may have actually been imported from India (Zarrilli, 1992). While they are not the only numbers associated with the fighting traditions, some of the more prominent ones are 18, 36, 54, 72, and 108. These numbers can be seen in Indian, Chinese, and Japanese martial arts literature (Jin, 1928; Zarrilli, 1992; McCarthy, 1995; Sato, 1996) and within the names of kata.

One of the most common explanation of the use of these numbers is that there are 108 effective vital points on the human body (used in the martial arts), 36 of which are fatal (Jin, 1928). Another school of thought is that there are 36 vital points, and 72 variations in attacking methodology, making a total of 108 (McCarthy, 1995). Yet another theory lists 36 fatal vital points and 18 non-fatal points (Sato, 1996).

While the exact mechanism of the numerological aspects of the fighting traditions may be lost to antiquity, we are left with several reminders of this ancient heritage in the form of kata names and the number of effective vital points.

About The Author:

Joe Swift, native of New York State (USA) has lived in Japan since 1994. He holds a dan-rank in Isshinryu Karatedo, and also currently acts as assistant instructor at the Mushinkan Shoreiryu Karate Kobudo Dojo in Kanazawa, Japan. He is also a member of the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society and the Okinawa Isshinryu Karate Kobudo Association. He currently works as a translator/interpreter for the Ishikawa International Cooperation Research Centre in Kanazawa. He is also on the Board of Advisors for


1.Jin Yiming (1928). Secrets of Wudang Boxing. Translation of section on Vital Points, tr. P. and Y. McCarthy, 1994).

2. McCarthy, P. (1995) Bubishi: The Bible of Karate. Tokyo: C.E.

3. Nakayama T. (1998). Kassatsu Jizai ni Naru (To Heal or Harm at Will). Tokyo: BAB Japan Inc.

4. Rench, A. (1999). Classical Okinawan/Japanese Pressure Points. Unpublished Document.

5. Sato K. (1996). Seiden Jissen Tenketsu-jutsu. (Orthodox Dim Xue for Real Fighting) Tokyo: Baseball Magazine.

6. Zarrilli, P. (1992) "To heal and/or harm: The vital spots
(marmmam/varmam) in two south Indian martial traditions."
Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Vol. 1:1 and 1:2.

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

kyusho jutsu, pressure points, ki, chi,kikoo, neurological points, vital points, karate, atemi, accupuncture points, tuite, Traditional Chinese Medicine, meridian points, five element theory, shichen

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