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What's The Point?

Speculations On the First Move From Pinan Kata Two, Pressure Points And The Reality Of The Death Touch

by Ronald van de Sandt

In today's martial arts community there is always discussion about pressure points, vital spots, nerve strikes, dim mak techniques (1), etc. The age old questions of whether these points are real, are contained within katas, and are effective in combat have been a cause of great controversy. One often hears heated discussions among martial artists concerning meridians, chi flow, time tables of when to strike and such. Perhaps the answers to these questions can be found through the analysis of just one such technique which can be found in a common karate kata called Pinan (Heian) Nidan (Shodan in my style). (2)

While reading a jujitsu book one day, which describes jujitsu techniques of the 1800's ("Japan's Ultimate Martial Art: Jujitsu Before 1882 The Classical Japanese Art Of Self Defense," by Darrel Max Craig), I was startled to find many pressure point strikes (atemi waza) that were very similar to moves and techniques within katas of my own style. One such "atemi waza" technique is very similar to the first move in Pinan Nidan (two). Here I have drawn my own interpretation of this move. (3)

The opening move of the kata typically consists of a left outward side block, and a simultaneous right upper block, as you step to the left into a cat stance (in my style a horse stance) simulating a defense against an attack coming from your left side.

One common explanation of this move is a block of two incoming strikes (from the left and from the front). Others suggest this first move is a set up for the following move of the kata (not shown) that it is a throw or take down, or some variation thereof.

However, the jujitsu book I was reading showed a similar technique that in karate could be interpreted as the upper arm blocking or controlling a punch or an attempted grab, while the other arm strikes (spear hand) upward to the armpit.

According to the book, a successful spearhand strike into this area would create immediate pain and swelling in the armpit, and a hard lump would appear within about 15 minutes. Other symptoms would include a bitter taste in the mouth, a dry throat, and nausea. The next day the victim of this attack would experience a loss of appetite, have difficulty breathing, and experience a sharp pain running from the affected arm, down the rib cage, to the hips. Next would come coughing, the pain in his side would move to the chest, and he would begin to vomit a frothy, white fluid, similar to potato broth in appearance. Finally he would experience overall weakness, leading to death.

I decided to do some research. I began looking for modern medical reasons why this technique might be deadly. I was also examining it for combat effectiveness.

Now, I'll state right off the bat that I'm not a medical expert, nor have I had any medical training outside of basic first aid and CPR. But being of the curious sort, I looked up Henry Gray's 1918 publication of "Anatomy Of The Human Body" to see what was anatomically located in that area that could possibly cause this to be a fatal strike with these types of symptoms.

I learned that the armpit is a major junction of thickly packed arteries, veins and nerves leading to the arms which are largely unprotected by muscle mass or bone. The following illustration shows some of these elements, but is limited since arteries, veins and nerves overlap. In yellow is the brachial plexus (a complex web of nerves that start in the lower neck, go down under the collar bone) as it branches into the axillary, radial, median and ulner nerves which innervate the arm.(4) In red is the axillary artery, the thick root of much of the arm's artery network. The brachial vein which runs through this area and is fed by a major part of the arm's return blood system is not shown. Neither are the lymph glands that are also found in this area. Thus, a concentrated sharp upward strike to this region could cause damage, shock, impede function, cause swelling or rupture one or more of these systems. (5)

In order to get at this junction, the arm must be raised, which explains the position of the other arm (upper block). The other arm/hand would block an incoming punch, then grab and slightly raise the opponent's arm, exposing the normally protected vital spot to a devastating strike.

By looking at the pictures, and reading where and to what the junctions are connected, I surmised that sufficient damage to these arteries and nerves could very well kill a person by internal bleeding caused by the rupturing of arteries, interruption of blood flow, interruption of nerve signals to the brain and by swelling, etc. Death could probably occur in minutes or several hours depending on the accuracy and strength of the strike. A hard strike in that location could immediately eliminate the use of the arm struck, and I imagine the pain would be very intense, effectively eliminating the opponent from the battle. How fast the rupture bleeds would determine the amount of time before death occurred, and it appears that ruptures such as these are difficult to repair, even with today's technology.

In addition, the stimulation and damage of the various nerves would cause one to feel nauseous and dizzy corresponding to the description stated in the jujitsu book, and could also account for the frothy vomit. In the days when most katas were formed, there was not the medical knowledge and surgical techniques readily available to correct the damage, and therefore the damage could have been fatal, effectively eliminating a potential future opponent bent on killing you, or one of your allies or family. In addition, since your enemy's family probably depended on him for survival, his death could reduce their chances of survival as well, effectively reducing potential future enemies.

This does not sound like the philosophy of pacifist monks, but goes along quite well with the philosophy of professional soldiers and warriors, especially among Mongol tribes and the like. In a life or death battle for your, or a family member's, or a fellow soldier's, life, would you prefer to merely block, or deal an effective, killing blow to the attacker?

One strike, very fast, very painful, very deadly. If I were preparing a student, a son, a fellow soldier, on how to survive a "battle to the death", this definitely would be one technique I would include. It's not fancy, it's not complicated, it does not take a great deal of practice to perfect, and it gets the job done quickly and with finality. Ideal traits for a battle technique, are they not?

I concluded that this technique in particular was based on medical fact. When I subsequently compared various martial arts "pressure point" and "meridian charts" with medical anatomical charts of nerves and arteries, I was surprised to find out that the majority of the points are really junctions of nerves and arteries. Then when I compared the "blocks and strikes" of my style's katas, I was amazed how often the block or strike was in the proximity of one of those junctions, usually one of the major ones like the one described in this article.

This alone brings new meaning to the concept of kata, and provides a motive to study human anatomy and apply what you learn to kata practice. And in reflecting on the history of Chinese based martial arts, one realizes that the Shaolin Monks, and the other martial arts masters, were also often asked to be the medics and doctors of their society. So, are pressure points, vital spots, nerve strikes, etc. real and effective?


(1) The Chinese science of attacking the body and/or its acupuncture points or centers so as disrupt internal energy (ki in Japanese or chi, or qi depending on the translation in Chinese), organs, or blood flow to cause injury, or death - immediately, or hours, days or weeks later.

(2) The first two katas in the Pinan series of five where changed in the early 20th century when karate was brought to mainland Japan from Okinawa where it had been developed. Thus in many karate organizations the original Pinan Shodan (Pinan one) was switched with Pinan Nidan (Pinan two). In my style the kata discussed here is Pinan Shodan (one), but realizing that most systems practice it as Pinan Nidan, it was so named in the title of this article.

(3) My illustration does not exactly depict the technique as shown in the jujitsu book. Instead it is an interpretation of how it might have been adapted to karate.

(4) The brachial plexus begins at T1 and includes spinal segments up to C5 (roots) with some contribution of C4. The initial roots turn into trunks and various divisions which become the axillary, radial, median and ulner nerves.

(5) Traditional Chinese Medicine too assigns this area importance. It is the beginning of the heart meridian that starts in the armpit and terminates on the inside of the little finger next to the top of the fingernail. A strike to this area is thought to be able to shock or stop the heart.

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About The Author:

Ron van de Sandt has been in the martial arts since 1972 and has studied American Kempo, Shorin Kempo and Sholin Karate - a blend of Shorinji Ryu and Shorin Ryu Karate. Mr. van de Sandt currently holds a Dan rank in Sholin Karate, and runs the Sholin Karate Club, at the Fairborn YMCA, Fairborn, Ohio.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

pressure points, vital points, dim mak, pinan kata, heian kata, bunkai, kata, kata applications, karate

Read more articles by Ronald van de Sandt

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