In Search of the Origins of Te

It’s a well-known fact that more than 100 years ago karate was referred to as “te.” I understand te to be a means of self-defense, an unbeatable martial art, and also a martial art that can transform into dance. However, I continue to question why karate was referred to as te (hand), why not bujitsu or kempo? In this report I am seeking the roots of te, thinking about the hand techniques used in Henshuho, and trying to understand why the word te (hand) was used to refer to this fighting art.

Our hands, with their five fingers, perform a variety of tasks for us as we go about our daily lives. They play musical instruments, such as the piano and guitar, which bring comfort to our hearts, and hold the pens and brushes which produce calligraphy, paintings and other forms of fine art. Their supple movements bring beauty to the world of dance. Holding a knife, our hand chops the ingredients used in making a delicious meal. Using various materials and processes, our hands are responsible for producing a plethora of goods. Tilling the land, they help us grow produce, and at a PC keyboard, aid us in communicating with the world. The list goes on and on …

Keeping these things in mind, I took a good look at my own hands and wiggled my fingers. Naturally, each of them moved unfettered, as if it were a living thing in its own right. (An interesting note: when counting with their fingers Japanese start with the hand open and then fold in the fingers beginning with the thumb. Westerns start with a fist, which they open sequentially, beginning with the pinkie)

It was when I wiggled my fingers that I realized something important, namely the freedom of movement. Our 10 fingers can move freely and independently, and yet can also work cooperatively together in performing various tasks. This ability is why our hands play a very fundamental role in support of our daily existence.

Additionally, however, within our hands there exist life energy corridors, “qi routes,”which connect our entire body from fingers to toes. (In oriental medicine there are six bowels: small intestine, gallbladder, stomach, large intestine, bladder, san jiao—functional metabolic organ in Chinese medicine—and six internal organs: heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney, pericardium.)

Return to Traditional Techniques

In the pictures below we can see; 1) five fingers; 2) a fist; 3) an open hand with imaginary lines (red) connecting each finger, indicating the free movement of the fingers; and 4) a knife hand formed with the fingers coming together as one after the lines connecting the fingers have been cut. These pictures can help illustrate a point in advancing technical innovation of traditional Henshuho. Namely, the fact that the five fingers fold up to form a fist or come together as one to form a knife hand, entrapping their free independent movement.

In order to broadly disseminate karate to the general public, in Japan, as part of the physical fitness movement, promote it as a competitive sport , and change its form to make it suitable for the times, it seems that it was necessary to label traditional techniques as dangerous. It can also be conjectured that the implicit rule that these techniques not be taught outside of one’s own school went through the minds of more than few of the karate pioneers. Why then do we want to focus our attention on traditional techniques that are forbidden or illegal in karate matches which focus on the “fist”?

There are two reasons. One is that Karate, which emphasizes striking and hitting techniques using the “fist,” is unable to compete with a martial art that possess “cutting”and “thrusting/stabbing”techniques.

The second is that competitive sport karate is being mistakenly recognized as the “real thing.” Almost unnoticed, sport karate has established itself in society, and even worse, people have started to also mistakenly view it as a form of martial entertainment, such as kickboxing.

The Power of Spirals

Through my exchanges with Tenshisho-Jigenryu, a sword group that trains very seriously, I was made to realize the limits of modern karate and kobudo techniques and theory. After much thought and worry about this, the conclusion that formed in my mind was the need to “return to traditional techniques.” The reason being is that traditional techniques are based on gamaku (shimegoshi) and chinkuchi (katashibori) and other Budo theories, and make maximum use of hand techniques that utilize all the fingers of the hand, such as sashi-komu (thrusting in) and kiri-komu (cutting through), and foot techniques such as kudaku (breaking) and fumi-komi (stepping in).

Hand techniques used in Henshuho (1): [top] megosa and kosa, and [bottom] shuto and haito/hiranuki.

When William J. Dometrich, the head of Chito-Ryu Karate in the United States, saw O-Sensei demonstrate the traditional karate techniques that he had inherited, Mr. Dometrich stated, “The movement was similar to a revolving propeller.” I too had a similar impression, thinking of O-Sensei’s movements as “revolving in a spiral motion,” and for my own reference a few years later started to refer to O-Sensei’s movements as “spiral techniques.”

The Secret is in the Hands

Currently I am in the process of practising and incorporating into Henshuho “spiral techniques”from the traditional katas that O-Sensei passed on to me, and I have come to understand why Karate was originally referred to as te (hand).

Hand techniques used in Henshuho (2): [top] nishi/kakete and shotei/fukuro/kabuto, and [bottom] isshi/boshi and torakuchi/makite/torite/etc.

The origins of Te lie in the free, independent movement of the hand and its five fingers. Moving freely, hands can mimic the movements of animals, such as snakes, birds and monkeys, and, like the flow of water in a stream or clouds upon the wind, can repeat the same motion over and over again. Karate pioneers witnessed the emergence of sennhenn-bannka-shugi (infinite hand techniques) and maiodoru-te (dancing hands). And as such I am convinced that the core of martial arts is “in the hands”!

—Sakamoto Ken
Technical Head
Ryusei Karate-Do International

Many thanks to John Stuart, a Canadian who works as a professional translator in Japan, for helping to produce the English version of this article.