I have always been fascinated by languages, so much so that I majored in German and minored in Japanese for my Bachelor’s Degree. During my studies, I had to learn translation and was given passages in the foreign language that had to be translated into English and vice versa. What I found was that most words such as apple, road, house, dog, etc. usually translated directly from one language to another. However, many other words and phrases could not be directly translated, as there are cultural and idiomatic differences in the way words and phrases are viewed through the eyes of the host culture and the foreign culture.
After studying Karate for almost 30 years, three of which were in Japan, and after studying the Japanese language, I have found the same to be true in many of the English translations of the different Japanese technique names. One of the most interesting discrepancies that I have found is the Japanese word “uke” and the usual English translation of “block”. You see, the word uke is from the Japanese verb ukeru, which means “to receive.” If we think about the English word “block” for a minute then it brings synonyms such as “stop”, “deter”, “halt” and “obstruct” to mind.
So if we now compare the word “receive” with “stop” or “halt” or “obstruct,” then doesn’t it seem like we are talking about antonyms rather than synonyms? Doesn’t it seem like one has the opposite meaning to the other? Why is this?
I first noticed this linguistic difference over ten years ago and initially I just thought that it was interesting and left it at that. Since then I have started to delve deeper into the various words that are used as the technique names in Japanese and English and I have found many differences. Through living in different foreign countries, I have realized that it is not always wise to judge everything by your own cultural beliefs. Often it is better to be a neutral observer and to ask, what is the reason and what purpose does it serve? So how can two words, “uke” and “block,” represent the same set of techniques yet mean opposite things when directly translated?
The answer lies in the true purpose of the technique!
What I am about to say might sound a little controversial but bear with me for a little while. A “block” is not meant to “stop” an opponent’s attack, but instead it is meant to “speed up” an opponent’s attack in preparation for a devastating counter attack! What do I mean by this? How can I use the words “speed up” in conjunction with the word “block”?
Let’s go back to the Japanese word “uke” which means receive. When you receive an opponent’s attacking move, whether it is a punch, kick or strike, what you are really trying to do is to deflect and redirect the energy of the attack so that the opponent is temporarily thrown off balance and placed in a more advantageous position for a counter attack. So by “receiving” this attack you can now send the blow on its way in a different direction and then immediately deliver your counter with appropriate timing for the most effect.
Let’s look at a couple of different scenarios to try to explain the conceptual difference in the English word “block” and the Japanese word “uke.”
Scenario 1: Imagine that our attacker is coming at us with a front punch to the body. If we “block” the attack in the English sense of the word, then perhaps we use an outer forearm block (soto ude-uke) that attacks the opponent’s punching arm at a 45 degree angle away from us and stops his forward momentum. After successfully halting the attack we deliver a counter attack such as a reverse punch (gyakuzuki) to the rib cage to finish off our opponent. The end result of this encounter is that we used the majority of our energy in stopping the opponent’s punch, and consequently his forward momentum, and then we had to deliver as strong a punch as possible to inflict damage to a stationery opponent.
Scenario 2: Now imagine that our attacker is once again coming at us with a front punch to the body but now we are “blocking” the attack in the Japanese sense of the word. We are now “receiving” the punch. So as we execute our outer forearm block we change the angle from a 45 degree angle away from us to a 45 degree angle that draws the opponent towards us and deflects his punch past our body, thus “speeding up” the attack in preparation for our devastating counter attack of a reverse punch to the rib cage. The end result here is that we used minimal energy during our block, thus conserving the speed and momentum of our attacker towards us. However, we redirected the punch in such a way that we placed our opponent in a disadvantageous position that put him off balance as we delivered our finishing blow.
So based on these two scenarios, we must now ask ourselves what are the main differences between the key nuances of the English word “block” and the Japanese word “uke?”
The first difference is based on velocity. Remember that velocity defines not just the speed of an object (in this case a punch) but also its direction. At the beginning of the attack in each scenario the velocity is clear. The speed of the punch is as fast as possible and the direction is towards the defender’s body. However, at the point of blocking both scenarios change significantly and this is the point at which both languages show their actual meaning. In the English example, the velocity of the punch decreases because the block “stops” the attack and sends the punch away from the defender. But in the Japanese example, the velocity increases because the block “receives” the attack and draws the punch towards the defender but “deflects” its momentum past the defender.
The second difference focuses on the impact of the counter attack. In the first scenario, the impact is as if the defender is punching a stationery object because the speed of the attacker’s punch has been nullified by the defender’s block. In the second scenario, the impact is like a head-on collision as the speed of the attacker’s punch has been amplified by the defender’s block. So although, the first counter attack can still be very damaging, there should be no doubt as to the efficacy of the second counter attack.
The final difference is found in the purpose of the two blocks and this is what I was alluding to earlier in the article. In the first scenario, the emphasis is on the block rather than the counter attack as the true purpose of the block is to not get hit. However, in the second scenario, the emphasis is on the counter attack rather than the block, as the true purpose of the block is to place the attacker in the most vulnerable position so that the defender can deliver a truly decisive and finishing blow. Therefore, the first use of a block still allows further chances of attack by the opponent, but the second use of the block coupled with the counter punch renders any chance of a follow-up attack highly improbable. This should remind us of the classic Karate concept of ikken hisatsu meaning “to kill with one blow”. Surely the Japanese meaning of “uke” allows for this outcome more so than the English meaning of “block.”
So as you can see, a simple linguistic translation of a technique can lead to much ambiguity in the meaning and application of a technique by its practitioners. It is therefore very important in my mind that we do our best to research not only Karate techniques, but also the terminology and the culture behind the techniques. In this way, we can better preserve the legacy of our respective arts and also improve our own understanding of and ability in the art. The translation of “uke” to mean “block” is just one example where an understanding of both languages and cultures can lead to a breakthrough in understanding technique.