What Is Ikken Hissatsu?

By Jesse | 15 Comments

Ikken Hissatsu is a Japanese term that is used quite frequently in Karate (especially Shotokan). What does it mean? The term, in itself, is actually not abstract or hard to understand – it means simply to “kill with one strike”, or “one punch kill”. The exact definition is “One Fist, Certain Death”

That’s horrible!

But important.

Now, of course we don’t want to kill people. Can you even do that with a single blow? Some people claim they actually can do a “killing blow”, and that is the “true way” of Karate. Other people sarcastically replie that no man can deliver a “killing blow” with every strike, it’s impossible!

Personally I believe the term “Ikken Hissatsu” should not be taken literally.

It is merely a philosophical statement of attitude.

I mean, the idea that you should physically be able to kill somebody with one blow is quite naive, right? Of course it can happen, but the chance is not that big. It is bigger in Japanese sword fencing, Kenjutsu, where the expression originally comes from, but a fist is simply not a blade.

Instead, you could call it a “fighting utopia” or something. The goal is to always finish (note the word finish, instead of kill) the opponent with one (the first) blow. And if that doesn’t work, use another. If you need to, use a third. But execute every blow with intent, the attitude of “this will be the final blow”. Always expect the first blow to be the last, but never rely on it.

It sounds quite cruel, but if you don’t think like this, then you are sort of betraying yourself. Being purposely weak when countering an attack – in other words not thinking “Ikken Hissatsu” – is being cruel to yourself! And why would you want to be that?

In short, every technique should be performed with full intent and conviction, or you might as well spare your opponent the trouble and hit yourself instead!

For a more Western approach, “Ikken Hissatsu” can be compared to the latin term “Carpe Diem” - to cease/catch the day. The philosophy is the almost the same. If the opponent leaves an opening, you have to take it right away, 100%. It might never come again! Cease the moment, carpe diem.

So, “Ikken Hissatsu” is not really a practical/physical expression, but, like I said, more of a philosophical statement of attitude. This applies not only to punches or strikes, but also to kicks, blocks, throws and joint locks. For example, if you block your opponents arm in the optimal way, he/she should not be able to use it again!

Does “Ikken Hissatsu” apply to areas outside of physical violence? Of course! You can apply it to everything from cooking to sleeping to cleaning your house. It’s the same mindset but a different environment.

I would like to conclude with a quote that really embodies “Ikken Hissatsu”:

When asked for a brief definition of a good Karate person, Shoshin Nagamine replied:

“Kisshu fushin”

Translation?

“Demon’s hand, saint’s heart.”

I really like that.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

15 Comments

  1. Eugene

    July 20, 2009 at 2:26 am

    i’ve heard my shihan, arashiro sensei, say this time and time again. it’s what he was told in kumite when he was competing in college. i might’ve heard it by sakumoto sensei in okinawa too. it’s been so long, too long, i want to go back!!

  2. Jesse

    July 20, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Hi Eugene!

    So you’re still around huh? I see you went on a “commenting spree” :)

    Okinawa is waiting for you…

  3. Louise at Apples

    January 25, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Howdy, I really enjoyed this post. I have just started up a site and making rather diverse content. Would you object if I write about this article? Obviously I’ll provide you and this site due acknowledgment and place a link to this page , thank you.

    • Jesse

      January 30, 2010 at 3:41 am

      No problemo!

      /Jesse

  4. diman

    January 31, 2010 at 5:51 am

    Thank you for the enlightening article on ‘ikken hisatsu’. I have been struggling to recall the term for it at this time that I am trying to explain the underlying meaning for ippon in kumite. Your article has been the best at it that I found.
    Moreover, I like your video archives. Although I have been a Shotokan practitioner for years I have always been impressed by the bunkai of other styles particularly Okinawan and Gojuryu.
    Thanks again.

  5. ????????

    March 19, 2010 at 11:48 am

    I admire Japanese culture

  6. Newy

    April 15, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Nice article.

    I was talking about this idea with a couple of my mates. We had come to the aggreement that the goal should not be to kill, but to destroy their will to fight. By attacking with such power and control, that should they still stand, will not want to continue. It turns their mindset from hurting you, to defending themselves.

  7. Aima

    July 9, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Hi! Thanks for the article. It’s very interesting. It gives a deeper understanding of the term Ikken Hisatsu. Very useful info for my grading essay. =)Thanks again. ^_^

  8. Leo

    July 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Let me propose another interpretation. I don’t know facts about the history of this term, but think about following:

    As often and willingly stated, “Karate was the way of the pesant to defend against the Samurai occupation.” I will hold to that imagination.

    Now imagine. You are a pesant in a society where your only right is to be treated like shit. Now you cross the way of a nobleman and you b*tch bowed two inches too little, so he gets the impression, your disrespect should be punished by cutting your head off -and he absolutely has the right to do so.

    Now it is clear, once the sword -which in almost all societys (where swords are known) at all times all around the world is a sign of nobility- is drawn, you are as good as dead. Or do I misinterpret the fact that Iai students mostly learn to draw the sword? Well, I think the only chance for you poor pesant now is to run away and never come back. But sometimes it is not possible just yet. This limits your options dramatically. I would say there are few more than fight or die. So, again: once the sword is drawn, you can consider yourself dead.

    In this case “Ikken Hissatsu” would mean “last chance (-use it well)”. Which itself is near to the way of thinking in Zen practices.

  9. wizman

    February 8, 2011 at 10:49 am

    I also believe “ikken hissatsu” is more philosophical. I personally use it to mean that whatever task you have ahead, finish it to the best of your ability first time.

  10. Katheryne

    June 3, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Does anyone know if “Ikken Hissatsu” is the source of the “Esah!” cry often heard in karate dojos?

    I’ve been told that “Esah” means “energy”, but the spelling of that word (frequently used by karate dojos) seems wrong if it’s a real Japanese term. The pronunciation of “e” is typically short “eh” and not long “eeee”. Also, I can’t find a translation of energy or power that sounds like Esah.

    An abbreviation of i-sa makes more sense… especially since Osu is an abbreviation of 2 terms (oshi shinobu, onegai shimasu or ohayo gozaimasu, depending upon your opinion).

    Any thoughts on this? Google has left me sadly without an answer (for once).

    -- Katheryne

    • Newy

      June 3, 2011 at 11:39 am

      Hey

      I haven’t heard of Esah being a term for energy. I think the word you might be looking for is Kiai. Ki meaning spirit and ai meaning shout. That is the name of the sound you make, however, it is not the sound you make. Each persons kiai is different, as there is no correct way to kiai (but there is wrong ways, if you hear one you will know if it is wrong).

      Also not to sure on the word Osu our dojo doesn’t use it. From what I remember the word Osu doesn’t exist anywhere in the Japanese language, but it exists more as a slang word. It came in to being when younger peoples brought karate into the universities. I think it was as a result of not having an established sensei, with the environment taking on more of a sparring session atmosphere. So it was more like talk amongst friends, than talking to a sensei. And it has grown from there. As I said I am not sure so I would look around a bit more, seen an interesting article a while back, I’ll try to link it/

      Daniel Nieuwenburg

      • Katheryne

        June 3, 2011 at 5:58 pm

        The “esah” is different from the Chi-channeling “Kiai” the students say. “Esah” is something that other people say about the person who is performing. A bunch of the kids will often say it in a sing-song voice. EEEEEEEEEESAAAAAAAAAAAAH! Takes about 3 seconds.

        I once found an extensive linguistic analysis of Osu on the web. Can’t find the link again though, dangit.

        Basically, the Colloquial/Slang interpretation you mention is from the “ohayo gozaimasu” meaning, which basically means “hi” and is extremely familiar (especially without the gozaimasu).

        The Kyokushin Karate kids stick with the “oshi shinobu” meaning, which means to “push to the limits of endurance”.

        The “onegai shimasu” meaning is popular among “Go” players--it’s said before games take place.

        Just some background there. But the mystery of “esah” continues…

  11. dave oxley

    March 27, 2013 at 2:59 am

    what is wrong with you people?…..All of you armchair warriors! I have faught in the ring, have faught in life, loved and been torn apart through loss, one punch one kill!….ask yourself, if someone was raping your wife, if someone was hurtring your children, what could you do?, put your pathetic wingings on line to make you feel important? i have had to defend all that i hold dear, i have had to fight believing i might die. thirty five years i have looked for an answer through training in the martial arts, the answer i have found is, there is nothing you can take from me that i would not truly give…….including my life, but you would have to work realy hard to get the last bit!! haeeeeeesh, oooosh, yaeeeeeee,? you spend so much time shiteing on about the noise people should make you would never see the punch comming!! Get a grip ,and go out and fight full contact in the ring, no pads, no head gear bear knucklke to bear knuckle, kick to maim and be kick to be maimed!!!!, when you have lost or won, come back and stop shiteing on about silly noises!!!!

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