Kiken, Kitsui & Kitanai: The 3 K’s of Old-School Traditional Karate

Do you know what a koan is?


A koan is a story, dialogue, question or statement which is used in Zen-practice to provoke the “great doubt” and test a student’s understanding of Zen.

Ever read/heard one?

I hope you have.

Because, even though we are no Zen monks, the usage of koan provides good value for Karate students as a lot of insight can be gained from the introspective smash-in-the-nuts that a well-aimed koan always provides.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I posted a very simple status update on my official KbJ Facebook page, regarding the three K’s that modern Karate practice is often split into.

A Shaolin monk pondering a koan.

The status update read:

Kata, kihon or kumite?

That’s it.

Nothing more, nothing less.

I didn’t ask “which one is the best?”
I didn’t ask “which one is more important to train?”
I didn’t even ask  “which one do you like the most?”

All I asked was simply: “Kata, kihon or kumite?”

And guess what?

Outrage ensued.

After 50+ comments, varying from the more provocative ones (“kumite is for kids, kihon is for beginners and 99% of people don’t understand kata”) to the more expected ones (“my sensei told me…”), the results were in.

My koan had succeeded.

With flying colors.

Just by asking a simple “kata, kihon or kumite?”, without placing more or less value on any of the three, I had somehow sparked a lot of people’s suppressed opinions about what Real Karate™ should (or should not) look like. As you can see for yourself, people started talking about everything from bunkai to disrespect to technical details to tradition to philosophy.

In other words, established thought patterns were not only being expressed; but also examined, explained and perhaps even silently eradicated.

And that, my friends, is the proverbial power of a well-aimed koan nut-kick.

Karate Nerds™: 1 – McDojos™: 0.

But please believe me: I’m no ignoramus. It would be pretty douchey of me, to say the least, if I didn’t tell you guys what I personally think about the whole “kata, kihon or kumite?” issue.

Well, let me put it this way:

In old-school Karate, there was no such thing as “kata, kihon or kumite”.

There was kiken, kitanai and kitsui.


#1. Kiken – Dangerous

Kyoda Juhatsu (1887-1968) getting his dumplings kicked.

First of all, old-school Karate was real badass.

I’m talking bad to the bone.

And yes, in the literal “oops, I think I broke a bone in Karate class today”-sense.

You see, the objective of original Okinawan Karate was never to meet new friends, stay in shape, lose weight or have fun. It was to save yourself or your loved ones in a no-holds-barred physical altercation.

So, when you prepared for that in training, you couldn’t just be punching ‘in the air’ all day long or use twenty inches of foam protectors all over your fists and shinbones, could you?

Oh no.

A harsh reality demands that you practice for that harsh reality.

That’s why old-school Karate was incredibly dangerous, and that’s why, subsequently, it also had to be significantly changed when it entered the public school system in Okinawa (mostly thanks to Itosu Anko sensei, the grandfather of modern Karate) in order to provide a safe learning environment.

I mean, hey, if your kids learned how to poke each others eyes out, smash each other unconscious and snap each other’s joints, you wouldn’t want your kids to stay in that school for long, would you?

Back in the Ryukyu Kingdom days, Okinawa – which still is one of the poorest prefectures in Japan – was a place where Karate was used to protect against danger (coincidentally enough, that is actually the real meaning of the “Pinan/Heian” kata names. Go figure.) and therefore regular day-to-day training had to always dance on the edge of danger.

That’s why the first K of old-school Karate is kiken – dangerous.

Next one:

#2. Kitsui – Hard

Motobu Choki (1870-1944) punishing the makiwara.

Now, not only was original Karate dangerous, but it was hard too.

Those two are not synonymous.

(Shooting a gun is dangerous, but not that hard, right?)

Old-school Karate was incredibly taxing – both physically (training was meant to prepare you for reality, remember?), psychologically (endless “shut-up-and-train” repetitions under the watchful eyes of your sensei), socially (training was often conducted at night) as well as economically (training fees consisted of booze, food, chores and sometimes money).

The saying popularized by Funakoshi Gichin, “three years, one kata” (“hitotsu kata, san nen”) pretty much sums it up.

The thing we must remember though, is that Karate was hard for a good reason.

Not everyone was allowed to learn it.

The old masters took their martial arts teaching very seriously, and went to great lengths to avoid showing the deadly arts to the wrong people. Training would begin only after a sensei was pleased with a students character (self-discipline, respect, manners and obediance being top priorities), which is why it was pretty hard for the Average Joe to become a Karate student in ye olde days – where many people thought more about food and shelter than kicking and punching (which is one of the reasons why old-school Karate was never made for/by “peasants”. As you know.)

The fact that original Karate was kitsui – hard – is probably the very reason we’re practising Karate today.

Because if it wasn’t hard, it might have been diluted and died out a long time ago.

And lastly…

#3. Kitanai – Dirty

Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953) showing a kata application

Old-school Karate wasn’t pretty.

It was messy, unstructured, haphazardly put together and often taught in an incoherent manner.

Just like a real fight.

What worked worked, and what didn’t work was immediately discarded.

It was 110% a process of trial and error.

In fact, the ongoing debate in modern Karate regarding “form vs. function” wasn’t even on the agenda! I mean, probably the last thing you wanted to care about when you were having your face smashed in by fifteen thugs was how your technique looked… right?


(Granted, there’s a lot to be said for the opposite too, but I’ll leave that for another article).

Old-school Karate was dirty for a reason, just as it was dangerous and hard for a reason. Because in real combat, nothing is ever safe, easy or beautiful by default. Those are your goals, sure. But you cannot start with them in mind.

You need to start from the idea that self-defense is dangerous (kiken), hard (kitsui) and dirty.

  • There is no ref.
  • There are no rules.
  • And there is definitely no guarantee of victory or even help.

The dirtyness, kitanai, of old-school Karate reflects the realities of self-protection to the fullest – where nothing but your own abilities determine if you’ll be eating your breakfast tomorrow with a fork or through a straw.

And you must never be afraid of fighting dirty.

Because fighting dirty is just another way of saying “surviving”.

And that is the only goal we really care about, isn’t it?




With that being said, here’s my new koan for you guys:

Kiken, kitsui or kitanai?

The 3K of traditional Karate.

Hopefully you’ll know what to answer.

…or not answer.

It’s up to you, my friend.

Karate is what you make it.

Just remember to keep keepin’ it real.


  • Jesús Espiga
    Just wonderful and nice reading! 3K must be trained...IMO kiken and kitanai are more important because real fights last very little, anyway kitsui should be trained as well. Please, Jesse keep on your great work!
  • Kai-ru
    Another great article Jesse Sensei I am however a little curious as to where you dug up these ancient three K's. I do quite like them and do think they should be brought back into every Martial arts curriculum. With out them you minds well go do aerobics. However I would never let them detour from the importance of Kihon, Kata, Kumite. In my mind there is and never will be an or. They are all part of a greater whole which allow you to develop a Karate that will enable you to not only be a lean mean killing machine, these principles also allow you to learn to work with in a structure. A structure that can be used in all other areas of your life. I personally use this principle when developing English lessons for work. I warm up with some Kihon, basic grammar spelling etc, move through some Kata reading, re-writing or [k]onversation practice and finally finish up with some hard core kumite, loose, creative play that allows the students to simulate using there newly acquired skills in the most realistic manor possible.
    • Kai-ru-san, I like your last paragraph. It really goes to show that all principles can be universally applied, once they are properly understood. Just like you write, "a structure that can be used in all other areas of your life". Karate is a microcosm of life in many ways.
  • Excellent, this is so true. Thank You!
  • Theodore Kruczek
    Let me respond to your koan with a favorite saying: "Do not speak - unless it improves on silence. Very nicely done Jesse-san and glad to see someone else is interested in koans and zen in general.
    • Love that quote Theodore-san. Keep it up!
    • Madelyn
      I love that. It's so true. Way too many people try to speak because they are afraid of silence. I can remember training (very many moons ago) and one guy in class just wouldn't stop talking, being witty, funny, smart... So finally I couldn't take it anymore and said to him : "you know that silence is golden? Well shut up and get rich!" My sensei almost had a fit laughing :) on the 3K's . I don't have an opinion yet, but I do know that a stool can't stand on 2 legs alone, it kinda needs 3... *silence*
  • DaveInMinnesota
    Good Stuff once again, Jesse. :)
    • Thanks Dave-san!
  • Szilard
    To answer your koan: it depends on what your goal is. Out of the 3 you can have only 2 at the same time: karate as a sport of the masses (this is my favorite type) it can be hard and dirty, but not dangerous. As a McDojo quick money maker it can be dangerous and dirty but not hard. Karate as the sport for the gifted and talented martial artists preparing for the tournament gold can be dangerous and hard but it can not be dirty. I don't even know what could you possibly accomplish combining all 3 together. Ask the same question about chemistry. It can definitely be dangerous, it can be down to earth dirty and it can be hard. But if you want to achieve anything in an education process you have to drop one of those things or you don't achieve the main goal: teaching/learning. I think the same thing is true here in karate.
    • Food for thought as always, Szilard-san!
      • Szilard
        Funny, here I am expressing my preference for the safe practice of karate, and on the next class I break a toe (again).
  • Boban Alempijevic
    Lurve you Jesse-San, great article. I will not say anything else and let me silence be me answer for your last Koan :)
    • Oh, Bobab-san, you're a smart one aren't you? :)
  • Grrrrrreat article, sir. The cherry on top was "a well-aimed koan nut-kick". I'll be giggling all day because of that. You might want to trademark that, too! :)
    • Free koan nut-kicks for everyone! On the house ;)
  • Mike Black
    • Leo
  • SnowNinja
    Karate = Fun. Yep, that's what I think. Its Karate, you're gonna get hit/kicked, things break and tear (like bones and muscles), and you're gonna sweat, and its all amazing fun :). Its all in the perfecting and perservering.
  • Great post, Jesse. But I always thought that it was Dangerous, DEMANDING, and Dirty. The 3Ks get translated into 3Ds in English! I was halfway through your post and I'm like..."Hard?" That ruins the flow of the alliteration! :-D
    • Great synonym Kamil-san, and makes it sound better indeed! :)
  • Kevin
    I really enjoyed the article, but I would say that the 3K's of Kihon, Kumite and Kata are a Japanese approach to karate and not the original okinawan method. The 3k's illustrated by Jesse are more in line of the okinawan approach where physical conditioning was just as important (junbi/hojo undo).
  • MykeB
    Another great article sir! If you train with the Okinawan Ks in mind, the three Ks everyone knows can still be used to get there. You can train in a art that is difficult, dangerous and dirty and still use kihon, kumite, kata. I'm by no means an expert, but if you leave karate class and you aren't tired, covered in sweat and dinged up somewhere most of the time you may not be learning much about karate style self defense. If you don't have to pay close attention to what you are doing or you or your partner are going home hurt, you may not be learning much karate style self defense. You don't have to kill each other, it is not a testosterone filled gladiator's pit and injuries aren't a mark of pride and knowledge. Bahh, hard to explain in text. Conversation makes something like this way easier to get out. So much for coherent thoughts and words with my first post!
  • YES!!!! Thank you!!! This is something that I try to tell students all the time. In fact, I have been asked NOT to tell this to students of other dojos because other instructors don't like to hear it. To my students, they know and understand this. Thank you for another GREAT article. I think that I will talk about this again at class tomorrow. Keep it up. You are a great karate-ka for our times. -Chris Wisconsin, USA
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    Dear Jesse, Another article you've done well to articulate; well read, and plain old FACT ! Whilst one may strive to perform repetitiously specific techniques in the hope they look photographic - don't. Techniques in the real world will result as they should to give one the ability to create an opening in order to evade, and escape. So long as one understands this - they will focus their energies on application rather than being picture perfect. It is one of the reasons MMA / UFC and Krav Maga are so successful - these fighting forums get to the point sooner in order to win by ending one's opponent by Submission, KO, or by the method of Krav Maga which is neutralising your adversary ! Either way Jesse you've done well to publish another articles topic that ends on 'functionality' !
  • Jason
    The problem, as I see it with the martial arts in general, is that we train too much on being polite. I teach with a good amount of humor as we are hurting each other and egos can get bruised. I see way too many people "trained" wrong and by that I mean they are helping each other off of the floor. While this is polite if you were in either position in a fight, not sparring, you would and should not do this. Unfortunately, many people just are not able to take on the Kitanai aspect as we have been trained or domesticated. It is wrong to maim or kill people, even in training. I try very much to disabuse the people that I train with and people that I meet when the subject of self-defense comes up. The Kiken and Kitsui parts come with the territory and those that don't have the stomach or desire often quickly leave or run for the door.
    • Jason
      Oh, and by the way, excellent article as always!
  • Leo
    Jeese, please write the kanji version of japanese words so I have a better understanding of them and I can be able to search entries for them in the Japanese web.
  • Jose Antonio Bermudez
    Sounds like Cobra Kai Strike First (Kiken), Strike Hard (Kitsui), No Mercy (Kitanai).
  • Kiken, kitsui or kitanai? And over or Thank you, Jesse sensei. ????? Very much appreciate this share.
    • Those ?s were not supposed to be there. Confusing. My apologies

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