The Old Okinawan Karate Toe Kick:
Part 3- More Shorin-Ryu & Intro To Naha-te
By Christopher Caile
Editor’s Note: Part
1 of this series introduced the subject of
toe kicks and provided the basics of how they are performed. Part
the author’s own introduction to toe kicks as well as some of the
early great Shorin ryu masters who used this technique, their targets
and some of the strategy of applications. Part 3 continues the discussion
of the toe kick through the Matsumura Seito branch of Shorin-Ryu and
introduces the Naha-te lineage and their use of toe kicks. Part 4 will
continue the discussion of Naha-te. Future articles will discuss other
Shorin-ryu masters who utilized the toe kick first on Okinawa and then
in Japan. Future articles will also discuss targets, possible implications
for DIM MAK as well as the conditioning and development of the toes.
A round house toe kick performed by
Akira Nakamura Sensei on Christopher Caile, the author. This is
an old foot method adapted to a new technique, the roundhouse kick
itself having been an innovation developed before WW II. (1)
Shorin-Ryu: Fusei Kise Sensei
Among various other dojos I visited in Okinawa in 1984 was that of Fusei
Kise. Kise was a long time and senior student of Hohan Soken sensei and
was recognized in 2002 by the Japanese government as inheritor of Hohan
Soken’s system (Soken was discussed in Part 2). Fusei was a long
time friend of Roy Suenaka (my aikido teacher who is also a teacher of
Matsumura Seito Shorin Ryu karate), who I accompanied in this visit.
In his classes, Kise stressed mobility, says James Coffman, who studied
with him on Okinawa. High stances are used to maximize this mobility.
High stances also allow a leg to be easily lifted to either block or
kick. Kise liked to move and toe kick simultaneously. His counter techniques
and blocks were often harder than Soken’s, however, and often punishing.
He would often use a hard block to punish an attacking arm and slightly
turn the opponent (sometimes setting up kicks to the back). One of the
old sayings was “Break off the arm and beat him with it.” (2) In comparison, Soken’s techniques seem much softer.
A rare 1962 photo (left) of James Coffman blocking
a punch- toe kick combination by Fusei Kise when both were students
of Hohan Soken Sensei. Notice Coffman’s downward strike to
the long bones on the top of Kise’s kicking foot. At right
Kise blocks Coffman’s right punch while simultaneously countering
with a right backhand strike to Coffman’s face, under which
a low toe kick is launched. (Courtesy of James Coffman).
Kise teaches (in a set of ten basic attack and defense sequences shown)
to move and retreat off the attack line at a 45 degree angle, while blocking,
trapping, or holding an arm, and while simultaneously kicking. He used
various kicks, such as the ball of the foot when striking just above
and below the knee cap (front kick) or a short low side kick to the knee.
Toe kick targets that Fusei Kise stressed included: a point to the inside
of the leg just below the knee, a point on the inside of the leg above
the knee, a point below the ankle bone, a kick to the top of the foot
(toe pressure or stabbing kick), and from the rear, a kick to the buttocks.
He used toe kicks to the outside of the leg as well.
Sensei Fusei Kise steps off the attack line at a
45 degree angle, intercepts a punch and prepares to execute a toe
to the lower leg of the attacker (photo left). Once off line Kise
counters with a toe kick to the inside of the attacker’s rear
leg. (Dec. 1994 –Gunners Gym, Camp Foster, Okinawa).
Capturing an arm and moving to the outside was also stressed
by Kise Sensei in his classes. Here the author, while training
Kise, intercepts a punch with an inside block and then grasps the
attacker’s wrist while retreating at a 45 degree angle to the
outside. The body is then pivoted so the left hand can grasp the
opponent’s arm at the elbow as the kick is performed. (Dec.
1994 –Gunners Gym, Camp Foster, Okinawa)
The advantage of this 45 degree movement is the ability to maintain
distance by retreating at an angle as an attacker advances. This allows
the defender to counter or trap an attacking arm, for example, but be
off line so a second attack is not possible. It also sets up the position
for a counter kick, such as a toe kick to the front or rear leg.
Kise’s techniques are based more on power than Soken’s,
says Coffman. This power was used to redirect the attack physically.
It is also more linear, and more kumite orientated, whereas Soken used
less force and were performed to closer tolerances (finer movements).
Kise also used to teach basic exercises that used ten basic toe kick
combinations as counters to any kick. In these exercises an opponent’s
kick would be blocked in such a way as to sweep it to the side and turn
the opponent to expose targets on his rear, such as the calf, behind
the knee, buttocks, etc. If the attack was a front kick, one counter
included a straight toe kick into the crease where the torso meets the
leg (where the femoral artery and nerve that are exposed between the
muscles – more exposed on the right than left side) – one
of Kise’s favorite targets.
Kise also liked to use his toes on targets on the outside of the leg.
These targets require considerable more toe strength because the thigh
is covered with a thick muscle mass. If you are just beginning to practice
toe kicks and your toes are not well conditioned, only softer targets
should be targeted. In the front these targets include the inner thigh,
lower abdomen, and groin. To an opponent’s rear these would include
behind the groin, into the buttocks and up into the back of the knee.
Kise also would control and grab, but just as often a punishing block
would be applied to the striking arm or kick. A toe kick would be added. “The
inside of Kise’s fingers, his thumb’s second knuckle and
that of his first finger (top two knuckles) were also heavily calloused,” notes
Coffman, so when he blocked and then gripped you he could access pressure
points – “quite painful.” (4)
Often times too a kick would be parried and the attacker turned (off-balancing),
so vital points on the back side of the attacker would be vulnerable
to toe kick attack. As alternative kicks were sometimes caught, such
as a scoop of a front kick or catch of a round-house kick. Having captured
a leg, and thus controlled the opponent’s movement, a toe kick
to the groin, inner thigh or lower abdomen could be easily applied. Techniques
are, however, less simultaneous than Soken’s with a time differential
between the block and counter. (5)
Some Observations On Strategy Of Movement
The Japanese character for rice
starts with two cross brush strokes (like a plus sign - “+”),
with additional brush strokes added at 45 degree angles – the
eight angles often used within martial arts to indicate possible
directions of attack, defense or off-balance.
While most styles of karate usually include movement patterns in eight
directions from a single point (often referred to as the “rice
line” because it resembles the Japanese character for rice), important
differences can be noted in the manner in which lines of movement are
stressed within a style and how they are combined with toe kicks.
Soken, for example, was noted for his forward movement at an angle while
countering (often including use of the toe kick), while Kise preferred
to move at an angle backward (although he moved at other angles as well).
In Part 2, we noted another Shorin-ryu stylist, Kyan, who when using
a toe kick (or other defensive counter) preferred to move forward at
an angle or directly to the side. Other styles, such as the Chinese art
I had studied (mentioned in Part 2), are more direct, minimizing defensive
movements to the side or rear, preferring often just to overwhelm an
attack with speed combined with a flurry of multiple movements.
There is also a difference between the use of toe kicks in free fighting
and self-defense. In free fighting when movement is fluid, and both sides
are in constant adjustment and doing flurries of technique, pin-point
targeting is impossible. Here toe kicks should be directed at the larger,
most accessible areas – such as the lower abdomen and floating
ribs. This is illustrated by the story about Tadashi Nakamura that started
Suenaka demonstrates on this author a trapping technique
typically taught by his karate teacher, Hohan Soken. When an
wrist, arm, shoulder, or leg is captured, the opponent’s
body movement is stabilized. This allows precise targeting by toe
kicks and other follow up techniques. This type of capturing, also
called “karamiti,” meaning trapping and entangling,
is found in (although hidden in) many Shorin-ryu kata, such as
the Pinans. If you are a Seido Juku karate student you will recognize
the similarity of the above catching technique to the beginning
of Intermediate Self-Defense # 1.
Self defense situations offer more opportunity for toe kicks. The strategy
is to stop, redirect and often capture the initial technique. Often too
the initial technique is a grab or a push which tends to freeze the attacker’s
position. Soken, for example, often employed simultaneous control and
capturing of an attacking arm along with a counter – thus limiting
the opponent’s movement and making him vulnerable to more targeted
Here we will depart from the Shorin-ryu tradition to discuss Naha-te,
and its reemergence under several great teachers. Additional Shorin-ryu
teachers will be discussed in Part 4 of this series.
The Naha-te Tradition
The Shorin-ryu karate tradition discussed in Part 2 and above is not
the only one specializing in toe kicks. In late 19th century a second
great Okinawan karate tradition of Naha-te (Naha hand) was re-emerging
around the port city of Naha -- a bustling seaport town and business
area, center of trade and residence for many sailors, traders, and foreigners.
There too was a large Chinese population which had first immigrated in
the 14th century, as well as Chinese scholars, diplomats and many teachers
of martial arts (many residing in Kume village). (6)
During the centuries when karate was practiced in secret on Okinawa,
teaching was restricted only to a few, and thus no teacher created a
wide following. Additionally these secretive arts were without names.
Everything was closely guarded. Fighting traditions simmered below the
surface of society practiced by teachers and students whose names will
never be known. (7)
By the mid- 19th century, however, this secrecy began to dispel and
practice was no longer hidden. A number of Okinawans traveled to China
and brought back Fujian fighting systems as early as 1845, but they never
developed a wide following. One of these early pioneers, the founder
of Ryuei-ryu, Kenri Nakaima, will be discussed in Part 4. (8)
The Naha-te tradition might have been virtually unknown if it had not
been for two men: Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1917) and Kanbun Uechi (1877-1948).
Both traveled to China to study and each brought back to Okinawa similar
systems of technique and kata from the Chinese Fujian province. When
they returned from China, since martial arts no longer had to be hidden,
these teachers could now openly teach and accept students.
Kanryo Higaonna (often written Higashionna) was most responsible for
re-sparking the flame of Fujian fighting traditions that would grow into
a major tradition. But it was not Higaonna himself who developed a great
following. Instead it was his student, Chojun Miyagi, who translated
Higaonna’s art into a popular style now known world-wide: Goju-ryu
(although the name Goju Ryu did not actually exist until the late 1920’s
or early 1930s when the first styles were named).
Born in Naha, Higaonna’s family was impoverished despite the fact
that they were shizoku (social ranked aristocracy) (9), his father being
a 9th generation successor to the King. It seems, however, that they
still had social and political connections. As a youngster, it is said
that Higaonna learned Okinawan ti (indigenous fighting techniques) (10) and later tode (an early name for karate) (11) from Peichin Seisho Arakaki
from Kume village, who was one of the king’s bushi (and whose father
was Shuri’s chief magistrate in the area). With the help of an
Okinawan diplomat with contacts in China, Higaonna traveled to China
to study in 1873.
His destination was Fuzhou City, a political and economic center of
Fujian province. There he studied under Ryu Ryu Ko (also spelled Ru Ru
Ko) who may have been associated with one of the Chinese secret societies
that opposed the current ruling dynasty. (12)
There is a story about Ryu Ryu Ko. Just as a farewell party on a junk
for one of his students was ending, the student decided to test the skill
of his teacher, Ryu Ryu Ko.
Having already disembarked the junk and standing
on dock, the student struck out at his teacher (spear hand toward his
eyes) just as he was
jumping from the junk. As Ryu Ryu Ko landed, he leaned back to avoid
the technique and simultaneously kicked to the student’s bladder
area. Aware that a toe kick to this area could have dangerous consequences,
Ryu Ryu Ko warned him and prescribed an herbal remedy, but this was just
brushed off. The next day the student returned to his homeland. Three
years later a letter arrived with news of the student’s death due
to complications arising from the blow. (13)
Higaonna returned to Okinawa in 1893 when he was 40. He became one of
the leading martial artists of his time. Higaonna, while small, was fast
moving and had powerful hips. His nick name became “Ashi no Higaonna” (Legs
Higaonna) for his kicking ability.
There is a story about him too. One night while returning home from
a night on the town (in Tsuji-machi –a district known for its bars,
restaurants and places of entertainment), a slightly inebriated Higaonna
took a short cut through a cemetery. While there, a man, Sakuuma no Akaganta,
stepped out of the shadows to block his path. Akaganta had a reputation
as an unsavory street fighter, a self-taught karate-ka who specialized
in kicking. Physically, he was much larger than Higaonna. When he raised
his hand to push the little man aside, Higaonna reacted instinctively –delivering
a toe kick to the inside of the man’s thigh which caused him to
fall into one of the graves. Realizing that he was facing the famous
Higaonna, Akaganta picked himself up and fled and hid in a theater in
the village of Kumoji. (14)
Higaonna had two students, each of whom ultimately founded his own his
own style. Chojun Miyagi, noted above, founded Goju ryu karate, the best
known Naha-te style, and Juhatsu Kyoda founded To’on ryu, which
remained a closed family tradition until 1971 (To’on ryu will be
discussed in Part 4).
Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953), the son of a wealthy shipping family, began
his training at the age of 11 with Ryuoku Aragaki, who introduced him
to Higaonna. He trained arduously for 14 years with Higaonna – first
in Sanchin, the central kata in Naha-te and basics, and later more advanced
technique. Through Higaonna, Miyagi was introduced to other teachers
as well. (15) Upon his master’s death in 1915, he followed his
footsteps and traveled to China to find his teacher’s teacher (but
he had passed away).
Richard Kim (the famous author, Shorin-ryu teacher and historian) told
this author that Miyagi also traveled to Shanghai in 1936 where he studied
Pa Qua (16).
A young Chojun Miyagi (circ. 1905) at left blocks
a toe kick-punch combination by Juhatsu Kyoda (founder of To’on
ryu. See Part 4), while simultaneously countering with a toe kick
to Kyoda’s groin (left). At right Miyagi, now more than 30
years later, supervises two of his own students performing the
Kim (17) used to tell the story about a famous public demonstration
of karate given by Miyagi in 1924 (another source gives the date of 1927).
Miyagi performed several superhuman feats, such as thrusting his hands
into a bunch bamboo and pulling one out of the center, and jumping up
and kicking the ceiling of the demonstration hall. To many, however,
it was Miyagi’s toe kick that was most impressive. Kicking with
his big toe, he punctured holes in a kerosene can. (18)
To Miyagi, kicking and punching to expected targets was not karate.
One of his senior students Meitoku Yagi (who went on to form the Meibukan
Goju ryu organization) tells this story. One day a visitor to Miyagi’s
dojo was showing off, asking students to punch him in the stomach to
show how strong he was. Miyagi watched and after a while went over to
this student. The student tightened his stomach waiting for Miyagi to
test him, but Miyagi instead kicked him in the groin. Miyagi then commented
that karate is not just to punch and kick to where people are strong,
but to punch and kick where they are not expecting it and where they
are weak. (19) The toe kick certainly matches this bill, especially when
it targets the leg and lower abdomen. So do many other techniques of
early karate that targeted areas now out of bounds in competition karate.
Miyagi had several other well known students including Ei'ichi Miyazato
(Jundokan), Seiki Higa, Toguchi Seikichi (Shorei-kan) and Gogen Yamaguchi
(Japanese Goju-ryu) who are considered inheritors of his karate. Each
too founded his own Goju Ryu organizations. These teachers too, although
in limited fashion, carried on the toe kick traditions inherited from
Ryu Ryu Ko through Higaonna to Miyagi.
In Naha, Okinawa I briefly trained with Ei’ichi Miyazato at the
Jundokan, but never saw a toe kick used. According to Glenn Cunningham
(Jundokan for NYC), however, he asked Masaji Taira (a leading teacher
in the Naha Jundokan headquarters known for his innovative kata applications)
about the use of the toe kick and was told that it was still used occasionally
and taught primarily to kick up under the groin after capturing an opponent’s
kicking leg, (20) similar to what the Miyagi photos (above) show.
Another early student of Miyagi, Meitoku Yagi and his sons, however,
do continue to teach the toe kick, but on a limited basis. I did not
see it practiced, for example, when I visited several Meibukan dojos
on Okinawa. In 1998 I was invited to attend a seminar of Meitetsu, his
son (who with his brother now have inherited their father’s system).
He is outwardly very gentle, and quite open to discussion and questions.
We practiced self-defense, kata applications and kata, but again the
toe kick was never seen.
Ken Tallack who teaches Meibukan Goju-ryu karate in Kingston, Ontario,
Canada, however, does note its use within Yagi’s organization.
While studying with Metitoku Yagi (the father), Tallack notes, Yagi had
encouraged him to front kick in two ways: with the heel, and with a snapping
kogen geri, a groin kick using the toes (that could be aimed to the general
area of the groin which included the upper thigh and lower abdomen above
the groin, as well as to the groin itself). “To me this (the toe
kick) is the essential kick of old Okinawan karate,” says Tallack.
These two moves are repeated three times in the Goju Ryu version
of Seisan kata as illustrated in the book “Goju Ryu Karate
Do Kyohan” by Gogen “The Cat” Yamaguchi. Near the
beginning of the kata, in one series of moves (repeated three times),
the hands are scooped inward to the chest, the right leg flipped
backward (often interpreted at a technique to the rear), followed
by a step in with the right foot (that Yagi interpreted as a step
on an opponent’s forward foot with the toe dug into the top
of the captured foot) combined with a two hand finger strike into
the opponent’s belly, or higher into the chest region (that
Yagi interpreted also as pushing the opponent backward, off balancing
him, and possibly damaging the ankle of the captured foot). (Courtesy
of Masters Publication) (22)
Meitoku Yagi often demonstrates another use for the toes, but not actually
used as a kick. It is an application from the first moves of Seisan kata.
In the beginning of the kata there is a slide forward done three times,
where (in the application) you actually step on the center of your opponent’s
foot, combined with a press forward with the hands done at the center
of the chest.
Tallack notes that, “Yagi stepped on my foot, but then pressed
down with his big toe. It felt like a spike going through my foot. Yeeow,
was it painful.” (Shorin-ryu students will note that a similar
technique is also found in Pinan 2). (23)
Meitetsu Yagi demonstrates lifting the leg with
his foot ready to kick. The move is similar to the first part of
the block and counter toe kick combination described below.
Meitetsu Yagi, one of the two sons who inherited the system after Meitoku’s
death, is also a toe kicker. Carl Wheeler, who teaches Meibukai Karate
in Dundas, Ontario and who has traveled to Okinawa frequently to study,
has additional observations. “The Yagi family, father and sons,
have huge hands and “Hobbit-Like” feet, with fearsome looking
toes,” says Wheeler. “Meitetsu’s toes are so strong
that he often shows their strength by demonstrating how to walk around
on the toes, sort of like a ballet dancer.”
Meitetsu sometimes demonstrates a block-counter toe kick
combination. A student is asked to do a front kick, but before it extends,
steps back while whipping his own toe kick inside, striking his shin
against the student’s and jamming it, and then does a small roundhouse
toe kick into the inside of the thigh. “When I have been called
up to participate in this demonstration,” says Wheeler, “it’s
like volunteering for a root canal – you know what’s coming
and it’s very painful.”
Thus certainly the toe kick is practiced within the Meibukan tradition
of Goju ryu karate, but how central is it? To help clear up this question
I asked Sean Wong, who teaches Meibukan Goju Ryu karate in Markan, Ontario
(just north of Toronto, Canada), to ask Meitetsu about it. Meitetsu replied
that his father when younger did more toe kicks, but less as he grew
older. Meitetsu said that Shorin-ryu karate uses the technique more than
Goju-ryu and that while in Meibukan they on occasion use it, it is not
considered central. Instead the blade of the foot and heal are more Goju
ryu. This is confirmed by the fact that Goju ryu kata do not contain
Tallack added another important, but controversial observation. The
Goju-ryu descended from Miyagi based on Higaonna teaching has at its
root the concept of power derived, not from the hips, but from a rising
and falling, which on a higher level includes body compression and release.
Hip movement was later added, however, by Miyagi and other Goju-ryu teachers.
In a future article we will see how one interpretation of Shorin-ryu
that uses a special type of kosher (general hip area) movement contributes
to the toe kick being performed slightly differently. (24)
About The Author:
Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of
FightingArts.com. He has been a student of the martial arts for over
43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student
of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and
then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama
and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed
Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th
degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience
includes judo, aikido, diato-ryu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo,
boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak
Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term
student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is
a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture
Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International
Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations
from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively
through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and
Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and
tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper
journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.