Reviving Meotode: The Ancient Okinawan Karate Concept of Kicking Ass

Folks, I have a confession to make.

I’m a sucker for good self-help books.

Therefore, when self-help author “gurus” want to illustrate the dangers of head-in-the-sand thinking, by quoting some of the most inaccurate predictions in history, I’m all in.

For example; did you know that the chairman of IBM once claimed there’d be a world market for “maybe five computers”? Or that an internal memo at the telegraph company Western Union concluded that this “telephone” thing has too many shortcomings to ever be “considered a serious means of communication”? And let’s not forget Bill Gates’ famous old blooper,”640 kilobytes ought to be enough for anyone!”.

Now, sure, some people actually claim that these quotes are either ripped out of context or simply fake, but that’s another story. See, dodgy anecdotes are to motivational literature what facts are to science, and in these above cases the point being made is a pretty important one: in life, inflexible ideas and mindsets about the ‘right way’ to do things can be a serious obstacle to doing them the optimal way.

Which, when you think about it, has a fascinating implication:

If knowledge – about the right way to do stuff – can be a bad thing… might it make sense to think of ignorance as a precious resource, worth protecting?

The Japanese surely think so, because they’ve even got a name for it.

Shoshin.

The beginners mind.

Valued highly among other famous samurai-style states of mind like fudoshin (immovable mind), mushin (empty mind), zanshin (lingering mind) and more.

Now, if the concept of a beginners mind, shoshin, sounds like a brainless championing of stupidity, take a sec to just consider it mathematically: compared to the universe of your ignorance, the terrain of your knowledge is maybe the size of the Vatican (the world’s smallest country). And logically, whats the actual chances that all the good stuff, that tasty knowledge juice, is located within the borders of the Vatican?

That’s right.

Slim.

I guess it’s like I read in the Harvard Business Review a while back:

“Most of us will cheerfully acknowledge our ignorance about plenty of things… but few of us would dare cultivate a healthy ignorance within our own fields of endeavour”

– David Gray

Shoshin, the beginners mind, tells us that ignorance – being the opposite of knowledge (which is infinitely reusable) – is almost a one-shot deal: once it has been replaced by knowledge, it can be hard to get back. Hence, we must strive to always keep the beginners mind – because after it’s gone we are more likely to follow the usual, well-worn paths to find answers; keeping within the borders of our own imaginary Vatican.

Solved problems tend to stay solved – sometimes catastrophically so.

So let me try to widen the borders of your knowledge domain today, by educating you about something I find really cool. Because this post is neither about new-agey self-help advice nor Japanese samurai concepts.

It’s about something completely else.

About a seemingly lost skill of old-school Karate, today only practised by true Okinawan Karate aficionados.

Called…

(ready?)

Meotode.

The original Okinawan way of posturing, blocking and striking.

See, today’s concept of blocking with one hand, then countering with the other hand (while always keeping the passive hand safely chambered at the hip) was not the way to go back in the days. You know, the days when the success rate of blocking an enemy’s strike strongly correlated to the success rate of yourself waking up tomorrow.

Old-school, Okinawan no-nonsense Karate was grimey, dirty, raw and unfair. There was – unlike our modern one-, two-, three-step sparring (yakusoku or ippon/nihon/sanbon kumite) – no room to let your opponent patiently stand in a picture-perfect zenkutsu dachi to wait for your deadly “one shot kill” counter punch to his/her abs. There was – unlike our modern, free, dojo/tournament sparring (jiyu kumite) – no safe spot several feet away from where to judge an enemy’s posture, size, possibility of concealed weapons and strengths; before safely engaging him/her in a playful game of tag modern “Karate” fight.

Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate and still the poorest prefecture in all of Japan, was a place where you didn’t want to spend too many minutes in the wrong parts of town. Which means that original Okinawan Karate – the kind still advocated by only a few true old-school grandmasters of the last generation – was all about engineering an idiot-proof way of dealing with vicious thugs and sneaky hoodrats coming your way as quickly as possible.

Enter meotode.

"husband+wife+hand" = meotode

Meotode, literally meaning “husband and wife hands” in uchinaaguchi (the native Okinawan language) was a way of maximizing ones strategical advantage in a physical altercation by utilizing both arms equally in continuously attacking and blocking  – while keeping your vital bodyparts safely out of the firing line, using the optimal footwork/body movements of tenshin, taisabaki and irimi.

Meotode is a concept, theory and principle but also a technique.

However, before we go any further with this, let’s just agree that Okinawan Karate was never about killing people – contrary to what some people would like to have you believe. The island was way too small (and peoples’ families were way too big!) to have a whole army of revengeful relatives chasing you down. Dropping somebody dead was an exception, never the norm. Yet some Westerners, who have probably read way too many samurai novels to pass a sanity test, seem to think otherwise.

But I digress.

So, what does this “meotode” stuff look like anyway?

Must be pretty awesome considering I have barely cracked a joke in this whole article, right?

Well, that’s simply because it’s a pretty boring posture, to be perfectly honest. I mean, look at it, it doesn’t even come close to the crane stance!

Here:

Motobu Choki (1870-1944), notorious street fighter and Karate legend, posing in a trademark meotode-gamae.

“But, but… hey, hold on a sec Jesse-san!” I hear you going.

“That looks exactly like a regular double block (morote-uke), doesn’t it?!”

Indeed it does. As featured in a plethora of kata, including Pinan Shodan/Yondan/Godan (Heian), Jion, Pachu, Seisan, Sanseiru, Niseishi (Ryuei-ryu), and many other kata (sometimes in slightly different forms, considering hand placement and rotation though).

But here’s the kicker:

We might call it a morote-uke (uke = block) in today’s terms, but if we are to go back to the source, in reality it’s not actually just a block.

In fact, it’s not even an attack.

It’s both.

The thing is, in the meotode posture (what we generally refer to as “kamae”) you never have a passive or active hand (what the old masters referred to as a “dead hand”). While we, today, are accustomed to always blocking with the front hand and counter striking with the back hand, this was certainly not the purpose in using meotode, as the front hand could actively switch between blocking and attacking in an instant, just as well as the rear hand could jam, strike or grab at any time it was strategically appropriate to do so.

No rules, no form, just pure efficiency.

Maximizing the possibilities of successfully landing the first shot (following it up with a flurry of more shots) while minimizing the amount of openings presented to an opponent by continuously occupying the centerline.

That, was the sweet purpose of meotode.

Chibana Choshin (1885-1969), legendary student of Itosu Anko and influential founder of Kobayashi-ryu Shorin-ryu Karate

So how the heck is meotode actually used then?

I’m glad you asked.

My answer is: in a number of ways, depending on the situation.

But of course I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, so I have called upon my two loyal slave… umm… “students” Douglas and Jesper to demonstrate one of the real hidden beauties of meotode.

But first, think about this: How does one block and attack with the same arm without losing power and speed? I mean, a good hard block will always stop your arm dead in its tracks (which is why most people use the chambered arm for the follow-up attack), right? Surely, you can’t possibly attack with the leading, blocking arm from such a short distance and expect to have any significant power behind the punch, can you?

Well, perhaps not.

Unless…

You block and attack in the same motion.

So, here’s three of my favorite examples of meotode style blocking + attacking with the front hand. These following exercises were actually handed down directly from Nakama Chozo (1899-1982), perhaps one of the most unknown true masters of Okinawan Karate:

#1:

Jodan uke + tsuki.

 #2:

Gedan uke + tsuki.

#3:

Uchi uke + tsuki.

So now you know both why the Shotokan kata Empi has those weird “flying swallow” punches (#1), as well as why all these super old Okinawan senseis often seem to have such a “sloppy” technique in their kata demonstrations. It’s not that they haven’t taken their pills that day, but that some of their kata were designed for meotode, meaning you will need to punch with your elbows out to the sides (#1 and #2), or elbow bent down (#3) and generally change the path of the strike (like in #1: think age-zuki) for the technique to actually work correctly in both blocking and attacking!

Imagine that. A sensei telling you to punch with your elbows pointing more out to the sides. Sounds like heaven…

But – would that get you past the first round of any modern WKF kata tournament?

Nope.

Then again, meotode wasn’t designed for that.

So, lastly, should we all stop practising our finely tuned streamlined modern Karate punching and resort to the crude simultaneous block/punch methods of old hardcore Okinawan Karate? Should we try adopting the beginners mind (shoshin) and mix some of our plain vanilla Karate up with some of that wacky stuff which might be situated outside of our precious comfort zone? Outside of our imaginary Vatican state of knowledge? Huh?

Perhaps we should.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t.

Or perhaps I just don’t know what I’m talking about.

In which case, I suppose, what I’ve got to say might be particularly valuable.

Go figure.

29 Comments

  • Boban Alempijevic
    Hmmmm, Beginners mind sounds a lot like " Always be prepared to see something new in the old, and always no matter what keep your eyes and ears REALLY open because you just might learn something new from something you always thought worked in one way and not in any other way"That being said, I think i would not use this type of block/attack punches at the Dojo trainigns, but I just might train them anyhow outside the Dojo, you never know when you need to be a super cool Okinawa style brawler to save your precius nuts for another day of fun on this interesting ball of dirt we live on :D
  • Diego Romero
    what, no mention of naihanchi? jesse-san, i am disappoint.on a more serious note, +1. always loved the potential use of age uke as a punch. and yoko/uchi-uke is something i hate trying to use as a defensive move, therefore generally do it sorta like this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=iQZ3xn-UmjI#t=32sas if it were an ura-zuki (and complementing that, i try to spiral my ura-zuki).as regarding the meotode itself, particularly in case of morote-uke, it's interesting to note its use in the pinan/heian series, where it's very common in a "forwards pressing" capacity.off of the top of my head:-the start sequences of shodan, yondan, and as a possible application variant, godan (simultaneous instead of block-punch, maybe hooking back with the wrist on the uke-waza ala goju). -the multiple morote-uke present, stylistic variants aside (one in shodan, one in shotokan's sandan, the 3 morote-uke sequence in yondan, the kosa/juji-uke sequence in yondan and godan, and the second to last move in godan). -if shortened, the shuto sequence in yondan. -the kakiwake uke before the kick and double punches in yondan (which are tsuki-uke in hayashi-ha shito-ryu). -the grab before the knee in yondan. -the first advancing sequence at the start of godan (morote-uke, juji/kosa-uke and a double handed manipulation) -the hand under uraken after the mawashi-empi in godan (covering the low-line or keeping hold of/pulling the opponent).now one thing i find interesting about this is that pretty much all of these movements are done moving forwards, which has always given me the impression that these movements are probably without exception all active initiatives instead of reactions (and i'm massively biased against training reactions to the exclusion of active initiative). as jesse so eloquently explained, morote-uke is essentially a kamaete, and it is essentially a kamaete that consists on bringing one of your fists forwards really fast, while keeping the other one near, closing gaps and ready to do stuff. now what happens if you get too close (intentionally or not) or your opponent advances on you when you do it? you punch the opponent with an ura-zuki, or put up a barrier so that he himself can't punch you.let's look at pinan/heian yondan, for example: here we have a forwards movement with a low, double handed block. this results in you having your face wide open for exciting punchy action! solution: bring both arms up really fast as soon as you complete your cross block. cue morote-uke. no need for fancy applications or figuring out how to properly "support the block" or anything. just get your guard up and don't get punched in the nose (and maybe uppercut the guy while you're at it.alternatively, let's look at pinan/heian shodan (nidan in some styles. the one that has the morote-uke :p ): here we have just punched a guy (the gyaku-zuki), and then we advance into morote-uke... and turn into a completely different sequence. so what's the morote-uke? one possibility i like is to use the front leg to trip him (lyoto machida style :D), while using the morote-uke motion to put pressure on his upper body without dropping your guard (could be anything from a shoulder-barge to an uppercut to a simple forearm press).and THEN there's the use of the rear hand for some delicious hooks to the liver... but i digress.if one looks into other kata (particularly the older ones, like tomari passai and matsumura passai, for example), one tends to find numerous places where meotode is either used directly or could be used in application by varying the flow of the sequence. it's really nothing more than common sense. isolating your technique for training is one thing (and hikite does have its uses as a training tool), but when you need to fight, keep both hands ready at all times or risk getting bonked in the head really hard. as a bonus, it makes it easier for you to bonk the opponent in the head really hard in turn :D.
    • Diego, great krotty nerdism. Imagine what your comment would've looked like if I had opened up a can of Naihanchin though! ;)
    • lionel
      I like that video clip... several bits of Gojushiho in there; a close correlation, which is exciting. And, since you mentioned it, I practice Naifanchi using the.... uh... meotode [??] from Gojushiho. Well, I'd call it "hand timing/cooperation," ... or maybe that's something else.
      • Diego Romero
        nice! which version of gojushiho are we talking about here? (ie which style/lineage?)
        • lionel
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCdfNpH9P5U
          • Diego Romero
            ah, nice. sindt is epic, i love his kata videos.
  • Oliver
    No rules, no form, just pure efficiency.Maximizing the possibilities of successfully landing the first shot (following it up with a flurry of more shots) while minimizing the amount of openings presented to an opponent by continuously occupying the centerline.That sounds a lot like Wing Chun to me. Fascinating!
    • Diego Romero
      ^this.southern kung fu in general (with some exceptions) tends to make heavy use of this for trapping and close-range manipulation. not just wing chun, also southern mantis (northern mantis too, but they are unrelated), white crane, 5 ancestors, bak mei, lung ying...again, it's pretty much common sense. keep your guard up, and you have two hands, so use them both :p
    • I was actually about to throw the Wing Chun connection in there, but let it slip! Good observation!
  • Jim
    Its a nice coincidence that on Friday last, i was going over Bassai Dai, and really looking at how that first movement which drops into Morote-Uke could be used offensively instead of defensively, prelude to a grab and throw perhaps, or a grab and strike, the options are there and what i like about introducing the concept of meotode is the application is pretty straight forward, albeit unorthodox in this very orthodox world of Karate of ours ...Great stuff, not to mention as Diego was saying the use of the so called defensive movements in the Pinan as either aggressive movements more than aggressive precursors .... Gotta go to the dojo to test this out ....
  • NewBudo (Frik Willemse)
    Romero-san, are you a Naihanchi lover like me? Hahahaha! The most awesome kata EVER developed, in my humble opinion. Jesse-san, as always a great post. One which inspires not just one class, but several. We pretty much teach the same principle, just never knew what it was called! So, you taught me a cool new word that will make me sound smart in front of my students. Hahahaha!
  • Igor
    Am I the only one being reminded of Wing Chun here?
  • Matt
    Nice coverage of the concept! Have also heard the term "mefutode" used in this regard, sometimes from the Udundi line.
  • Matthew
    I've watched videos of Sensei Nakayama performing a rising punch and it always looked improper. It looked out of place, but now if I imagine a block/strike combo.....sweet!
  • Dan
    Yay me, a word I already knew!... eventoughtheyuseditverydifferently But on to the commenting part. =D Jesse-san, wouldn't a beginner martial artist/okinawan brawler with pretty much only meotode as his meothod, have a slight disadvantage on distance? To do those defend-attack-writeletter-altogether movements would require you to be pretty much at close quartes combat distance. From your examples, your sla~pupil throws a straight punch. To defend were the other one defended would be having a big part of the arm inside, which, in my experience, equals punch in your face. You could do it at a more convenient distance to block, but with your arm bent, it might not reach the opponent's face. I'm saying beginner fighter because I'm pretty much disconsidering feet movement, something that yours truly here really sucks at. I'm sorry if I'm saying nonsense. Meotode's Australia to my Vatican, it seems.
  • Jo Roman
    Nice article Jesse, I always thought of morote uke as a empty hand version of chudan no kamae as applied in kenjutsu/kendo; capable of both defense and attack, presenting a focal point to the enemy that makes it hard to correctly gauge distance of the attacking weapon (front hard works great in a lunge strike with a drop step, most people almost walk into it. Even kenjutsu/kendo's suri ashi works very well with this stance. Very similar to wing chun's open hand bil jee stance and old pugilism ... and thanks for the meotode reference, never heard of it before (learn something new every day!!) so now I feel more vindicated of thinking of the posture this way. Kudos!
  • Julia
    It's interesting that you chose to show meotode by showing how all blocks can be strikes....in my system, I have a sensei that says that there are no blocks, and that all blocks are strikes. Now obviously this is to prove a point, and not how the system is really done, but the idea is still there.
    • Dan
      I believe Nakamura sensei said on one of his books that all defenses could be strikes by inflicting some moral damage. Y'know, with a loud kiai and a defense to make that arm hurt, so the bad guy gets scared and all. Not discrediting your sensei and Jesse's use of the blocks, of course. I do think both ideas are valid.
  • Ethan
    I have always preferred the functionality of Krav-Maga and Indonesian Silat, but they aren't available in my area. I recently was introduced to Okinawan Karate and am enjoying it's function as well as form. I look forward to discussing meotode with my sensei.
  • Choki Motobu discusses this principle in his 1930s book. He mentions the double punch to the side in Naihanchi as an example of Mefutode (not the same spelling as Jesse`s but Patrick Mccharthy translated it into married couples hand if I remember correctly).I find it interesting as he is very clear on what the technique represents something that is rare in the pionering books on Karate (at least the ones I have read). He has a seperate text explaining the concept of married peoples hand earlier in the book too.Other than the writings of Motobu I think Jesse has written the best piece available on the subject on the web. I have not found any better explanation yet. Thanks for a well written, thought provocing article Jesse. If you are ever in Norway look me up and I will get you a carrot cake:-)
  • Jojavs1979
    Nice insights into the finer details of Karate! MEOTODE kinda reminds me of the moves found in Wing Chun Gung Fu with the elbows either flared to the sides or downwards... keep writing moar stuff! It's not everyday I see a blog about Karate with very interesting articles! ^_^
  • Jack M
    If you are in a picturebook stance, doing a picture book technique. You're probably doing a terrible Bunkai.
  • Ralf
    i'm really happy i found a master teaching us all that in his Karate. Just as he allways says: I'm teaching martial art Karate, not sport-karate. due to that the only new thing for me about this excellent article wasthe name meotode. but it's good to see, that practitioners of other styles know about this as well. that gives me hope that the situation of Karate is not as bad as i sometimes fear. otherwise this crappy "the k is on the way" frightens me. frightens me that Karate could suffer the same fate as Taekwondo that became a hilarious sport and lost almost everything needful for real combat.
  • Tashi
    Ehi Jesse-san! Is the initial guard of ryuei-ryu a form of meotode-gamae? Because of the fact that this system (as I know) was influenced by nakama chozo. Thanks for the answer :)
  • Dave Shephard
    Interesting article. But I think a little but of confusion. Meotode is and always has been an integral part of Wado karate and can be seen in our Kihon Kumte and Kumite Gata exercises. It is taught at a very early stage and should become ingrained in the students mind and therefore performance. It does as you state mean husband and wife hands and basically means the hands work together in harmony. The photo's you put up show another concept, also an integral part of the Wado system, and that is 'Ko Bo Ittai' which means that attack and defence become one (or one movement). The defenders left hand is in the Meotode' position but the movement itself is ko bo Ittai.
  • Charles James
    Actually, if one were serious about defense against predatory violent attacks on the street this "Meo-tode" form is one of, if not, the best way to get-r-done. Animal MacYoung demonstrates such a form in one of his many books on violence and the street. Try, "Taking it to the Street: Making Your Martial Art Street Effective."
  • Another great article. I have always been interested in how much the miotode hand positioning looks like the fighting stance of old school bare knuckle boxers. I truly wouldn't be all that surprised if they influenced each other at times.http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2011/0805/box_g_sullivan11_400.jpg
  • ofir bonen
    hi Jesse im admire your passion for finding the true Karate behind the veil, any way this principle look exactly like Wing Chun principle as u defence and attack in the same time. if we concider that the roots of Karate and Wing Chun is the White Crane fist it all make sense. keep up the good work

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