Article by Emanuel Giordano

Karate ni sente nashi, that is, "there is no first attack in Karate" is a very famous saying in our martial art. But what does it really mean? Let's see below the interpretations given by some famous Karate masters, and then let's try to contextualize and interpret them in the best possible way:
Funakoshi Gichin, excerpt from “Okinawa no bugi” (3rd part), January 1914
From ancient times a valuable message has been transmitted: “Karate [Tode] ni sente nashi”. It has been handed down to the present day as an important educational lesson for young pupils. Without an explanation, however, it is possible that it appears in contradiction with the practical application in today's reality. Preventive ki control is the most effective strategic deterrent in self-defense [winning without fighting, discouraging the opponent's attack with one's attitude]. However, if this result cannot be achieved [by discouraging the aggressor], then one must try to achieve it at the next level of confrontation [during the first attack that is received]. If and when these concepts are applied to Karate, the defender can overwhelm his opponent by receiving his attack and then counterattacking [thus using the go no sen principle]. However, one can violate the "karate ni senti nashi" principle when our life is at stake for our nation, or when someone is about to hurt or kill our parents, wife or children.
Motobu Choki, excerpt from “Watashi no Tode-jutsu”, 1932
There is a well-known saying in Budo which reads "Karate [Tode] ni sente nashi" and which is often interpreted as

"there is no first attack in Karate". Unfortunately this phrase is terribly misunderstood, especially by those who literally interpret it and teach based on this misinterpretation. I don't think attacking first is wrong! Anyway, to avoid misunderstanding, let me add that attacking someone without a good cause is not part of the spirit of budo. I also think that the majority of readers already understand that this must be our priority in physical and spiritual training. Therefore, in my personal opinion, "Karate ni senti nashi" is a phrase that must remind us to never hit or hurt anyone without a right reason, and to maintain self-control at all times. When you fight you must do it with determination, otherwise the opponent can seriously injure you. For these reasons, when it is certain that a fight is about to begin, the most important thing is to win! This can be achieved by attacking first! Understanding this hypothesis puts the meaning of the saying in another light, and allows us to understand why attacking first is a necessary tool.

Chibana Choshin and Nagamine Shoshin, excerpt from "Taidan" (1st part), September 24, 1957
Chibana: It is often said "Karate ni sente nashi", which means valuing respect and courtesy.
Nagamine: There are three types of timing; "Sen no sen", "Sen" and "Go no sen". We should never initiate violence, so using "Go no sen" is ideal. In other words, it means that we must resist unreasonable violence. Sokon Matsumura (Chinese name: Wu Chengda, stage name: Unyu, secretary of the three great kings Sho Ko, Sho Iku and Sho Tai) went to China and Satsuma. He learned Tode in China and Satsuma's Jigen-ryu [Ken-jutsu], and he is considered the ancestor of Karate-do. There is a passage in the "Seven Virtues of Bu", in a parchment that was given to his favorite disciple, Ryosei Kuwae, which reads: "Bu [martial arts] forbids violence, disciplines soldiers, maintains control between people, recognizes the results, gives people peace of mind, maintains harmony between people and makes people richer." Itosu sensei opened the [world of] Karate to the general public, which was then only for the Samurai class [the nobles], and proposed the 10 precepts of Budo to the government of the time in Meiji 41 [1908]. He emphasizes that Budo is a way to achieve a long and healthy life, and it should be included in the school education system.
The three writings are from different eras, as well as published in different ways. In fact, while the first and third come from newspaper articles, the second comes from a book.
Funakoshi sensei presents this concept by emphasizing the importance of avoiding "the first attack" during a fight, preferring instead to use the deterrent of the psychophysical attitude (winning before fighting), or the go no sen principle (defense and then counterattack), but at the same time he suggests ignoring this rule if the gravity of the situation requires it. So, although he invites us to use the "Karate ni sente nashi" principle, he also tells us to ignore it during the most dangerous situations, where initiative is instead important. This, in today's world, can also be considered good "legal" advice, where the excess of self-defense is a risk that can be faced. Note also the invitation to ignore the principle if you are fighting for your country, which may seem curious said by Funakoshi, but which in reality is fully sensible given the historical period in which the article was written, that is a period where nationalism was predominant in Japan.
Motobu sensei instead provides us with another important interpretation and, in my opinion, not in contrast with the previous one. In fact, he invites us not to take this principle literally, and not to base our teaching on a superficial interpretation of it. Motobu sensei, in a very pragmatic way, explains how attacking first is a winning strategic choice, and this integrates the second part of Funakoshi sensei's speech. However, he also explains that this does not authorize attacking other people without having a good reason for doing so, and that this behavior is contrary to the martial spirit. Nevertheless, he does not tell us to absolutely avoid the other strategies (eg go no sen), but rather not to condemn the use of a preemptive attack. In fact, many kumite exercises transmitted by him also reflect the principle of defense and counterattack, although performed in a different way from the modern interpretation of Japanese Karate.
Chibana sensei has not written much on the subject, but what he said reflects part of the two interpretations above, the one on the spirit of Budo. Nagamine sensei instead gives us a more detailed explanation but partially in contrast with the previous ones. In fact, he declares that it would be ideal to always use go no sen, which seems a further reinforcement of what Funakoshi sensei wrote. However, this statement must also be contextualized. If we examine the final part of his speech, as well as the year the article was published, we can understand the reason for this point of view. We are in the second post-war period, a period of great suffering for the Okinawan people, who needed to see Karate as something more peaceful and constructive than it already is. Nagamine sensei's message, however, was not only addressed to the people, but also to the authorities, who could have better supported the growth of Karate on the island. In order to plead this cause, he therefore tried to eliminate what could mistakenly make Karate appear to be something violent, such as the idea of ​​a preemptive attack, which could be mistaken for a real aggression by those who do not practicing martial arts, and by those who do not know the principles of self-defense.
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  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)
  • "The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)