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The Old Okinawan Karate Toe Kick:
Part 1- Introduction & Execution

By Christopher Caile

Editor's Note: This article is the first in a series on toe kicks as practiced in old Okinawan karate. Part 1 of this series introduces the subject and provides the basics of how this kick is performed. Part 2 will discuss some of the great masters who used this technique, their targets and some of the strategy of applications. Part 3 will discuss the conditioning and development of the toes that is necessary to use this kick effectively without injury to oneself.

The tip of the toe kick (tsuma saki)(1) was practiced as part of old Okinawan karate. Here it is used to target the floating ribs as the arm is captured and pulled back.

Not long ago after karate class I was practicing a special old Okinawan form of front kick. Another student was watching and after I finished he asked, “What kind of kick was that? It looks like you were kicking with your toes.”

“Yes, I replied. “It is the old form of front kick, not usually seen. In our style (Seido Juku Karate) it is only taught to a few senior students. It’s very powerful, but to make it work the toes need a lot of conditioning.”

The student’s response was not unusual. “Ouch, forget that. I try to avoid hitting my toes, not kicking with them.” This is an understandable response. Teaching toe kicks to most students would only result in broken toes and loss of these students.

In forming a toe kick I move my second toe up and then squeeze my third toe and big toe together to make a three toe pointed triangle (left photo), each toe supporting the other. (2) Most people, however, can’t move their toes very easily and just kick with their big toe. Notice here (middle photo) that the foot is angled slightly (about 5% degrees) so the big toe can make contact without endangering the others. I prefer this method, but most teach kicking with the foot held perfectly straight. Kicking with the tip of your shoe (right photo) can provide the same devastating effect as a pointed toe kick. (3)


Uechi ryu karate has its own unique method of toe kick using the tip of the big toe (called Sokusen). In this kick the toes are pulled back (in a bent position) and tightened into position. In this style it is the only kick used in the kata brought back from China. (Photo courtesy of Alan Dollar).

In the early 20th century in Okinawan karate the toe kick was common. Today, however, even in Okinawa many styles, such as Goju Ryu no longer actively teach this kick, although there are exceptions. (4) The kick is also recognized in Shotokan and some other Japanese styles including my own Seido Juku, but is very rarely taught. Only within the Uechi Ryu, some Shorin-ryu styles such as Kishiba Juku, Matsybashi and Matsumura Seito, does the toe kick play an important role in their teaching. (5)

Toe kicks using the tip of the toes as a striking surface can be very powerful, precise and penetrating. If they target weak points in an opponent’s body structure (pressure points), they can also disable. They are also perfectly suited to the modern world where people wear leather or hard tipped shoes – the toe of which can prove to be an effective pinpoint weapon.

Sensei Jeff Brooks, a Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu stylist (where the toe kick is taught as a primary weapon) (6) notes that it “is very valuable for all martial artists to know. Most confrontations happen outside the dojo and mostly you will be wearing shoes. With a toe tip kick you get the maximum penetration of the full wedge of the foot. And what’s more, with or without shoes, the entire force of the kick is delivered by and focused into a small area, for multiples of force per square area greater than the equivalent power behind a ball kick.”

Traditionally, the toe kick was used in a number of ways, such as a snap kick, or low round kick to the opponent’s front or rear leg. Usually the front leg was used for this kick, which is more snapped than driven with the hips (a front leg kick not being able to utilize the hips as well as one using the rear leg).


While toe kicks can directly target the groin, an even more devilish old technique was to angle the toes upward to kick under and behind the testicles (if a man). (7) After contact the knee continued to be lifted and pulled back so the toes pull forward and up –ouch.

   

If the opponent’s arm is captured and an arm bar applied, a vertical ascending kick into the face or neck can be devastating and potentially fatal. (8)

Usually the front leg is used for toe-tip kicks. It is a fast offensive or defensive weapon (able to block a kick). The knee is lifted and the kick is snapped into the target, but without driving with the hips as is often used when the back leg is used for snap kicks. Execution is very fast. Since most targets are usually low, the distance traveled is short.

Many old Okinawan kata applications, te (old Okinawan indigenous fighting techniques) and torite (capturing and restraining techniques) (9) techniques combine blocks, grabs, and strikes along with off balancing or tripping. These will often be taught as one, two three combinations, but advanced practitioners will perform them simultaneously.

Here, in a simulated self-defense situation, I use my left hand to catch and pull my opponent’s left lead hand forward (forcing his weight forward on his front foot) while I toe kick to the mid-point of the inside of his thigh (femoral nerve). Not only is this very painful, but this kick can effect motor nerve dysfunction, causing his leg to collapse. (10) Stepping in with my left leg I can use my knee to pin my opponent on his side (keeping him from rolling toward me), ready to finish with a right punch.

The rear leg can also be used for a toe kick in self-defense and in freefighting. Like a reverse punch, the back leg toe kick can produce more power by adding the hip and the body into the attack, but it is slower to target since it must travel a longer distance.

During the execution of both front and rear leg toe kicks the kicking leg can be quickly withdrawn. Greater effect is generated, however, if the kick is held on the target for a fraction of a second. Phillip Koeppel Sensei, who teacher Matsumura Seito Shorin ryu karate (head of the United States Karate-Do Kai) (11) stresses the importance of keeping the toe on target for a short period to maximize the neurological impact of the kick. Research has also shown that neurological target points have greater response if a strike continues to maintain contact for 3/10th of a second. (12)

Some teachers and styles of karate, however, teach to withdraw the kicking foot quickly. This prevents the leg from getting caught and allows execution of repeated kicks. In Uechi-ryu, for example, the front hand like the front foot is considered the first line of defense. Being closest to the opponent, both the front hand and front foot can be quickly executed toward an incoming attacker.

Lift your knee high in preparation for kicking. Your raised foot should be flat to the floor. This allows you to kick short distances straight into a target. When you finish the kick, keep the knee high and return the kick to a cocked position, ready for another kick if desired. The front leg when raised can also be used to block various low kicks by an opponent. It can also be stamped down on an opponent's foot, or pressed forward and down upon an opponent's front leg (on the thigh forcing the opponent off balance).

In kicking with the toes, remember to keep the foot flat when the knee is cocked if the kick is short and horizontal, such as to targets on the inside of the lower leg. The angle of the kick can also rise, such as when kicking into targets like the lower abdomen. But be careful, if the toes are angled to far upward the kick will slip off its target. When kicking vertically upward with the toes, the ankle is bent.

If you have been born and bred on the standard ball of the foot front or roundhouse kick, however, you will at first find the toe kick hard to execute. Your toes will seem to rise when you lift your foot. And if you are trained to keep your ankle straight (toes up) and you lift your foot for a front kick, trying to keep the ankle bent (the foot flat) and toes down too will prove to be a daunting task. It takes practice.

Watch for the next article in this series which will discuss a variety of subjects including: famous masters who used toe kicks, targets, combinations techniques, and strategy.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only. The intent of this article is to provide information on the historical roots of the technique and practices related to the development and methods of early karate and related arts. It is not the intent for the content of this article, or techniques demonstrated or discussed herein to be practiced or adopted within the curriculum of present day martial arts practice. The techniques described and illustrated may seriously harm an opponent or training partner and readers are not encouraged to use or practice them. If the reader wants to perform any martial art technique he or she is advised to do so only with proper supervision and training of a qualified instructor or teacher certified within the art to be practiced.

Footnotes:

(1) The toe kick is also alternately called tsumakasaki geri, ashi no yuba (toes), or ashi nukite (foot spear). In Uechi Ryu karate it is known as sokusen.

(2) I started practicing toe kicks in earnest when I was allowed into a small Chinese family martial arts system in Toronto. Of course in most Chinese systems shoes were worn, although they were flexible. In China this tradition of using toe kicks is widespread. One Chinese system specializes in them, Tam Tuie (Tam Toy, Tom Toy, et al). This system consists of one form (versions from 10 to 12 to more rows of techniques). A row is a series of techniques done in an east-west axis, and then the row reverses in the opposite direction for the next series (often found in Northern systems of Shaolin, Tai Chi, N. Mantis, N. Eagle Claw, etc). One form is a complete system in its own right. The kicks are delivered with great force and at toe, ankle and lower shin heights as well as into the mid leg range. The kicks are practiced with a lock out focus, and there are layers of delivery. One advanced variation has the toes dragged across the floor to slingshot off the floor at the end for a very different angle of delivery, where the first variations are thrust kicks out parallel to the floor. The famous Jing Mo (Ching mo, et al) association used it as one of the dozen basic forms all members first studied (all of which are very complex in their own rights). Jing Mo members would then study their instructor’s primary arts, such as Northern Eagle Claw, after those forms for basics. The art of Faan Tai Ying Jow Pai, utilizes the entire range of Chinese kicking technique (including aerial and ground technique) and in the most advanced forms, Tam Tuie kicking is most definitely a part of the study. (I want to thank Victor Smith for supplying some of the above information.)

(3) This is the preferred toe kick position in many styles of Okinawan karate. Many old masters, however, used the natural toe position, including Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura of my own Seido Juku Karate. I have also seen photos of feet where the toes are wrapped down and balled (like a karate fist) so the striking surface is the first and second big knuckle of the foot. This is very unnatural for most people, however. It takes training from birth and is virtually unseen today.

(4) While training in Miyazato Ei’ichi’s Jundokan (Goju-Ryu) in Naha, Okinawa in 1994, for example, I never saw the toe kick used (Miyazato is one of several Okinawan teachers who were senior students of Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju-Ryu karate. Miyazato is considered one of the inheritors of Miyagi’s system) . According to Glenn Cunningham (Jundokan for NYC), he asked Masaji Taira (a leading teacher in the Naha Jundokan headquarters, who is known for his innovative kata applications) about toe kicks and was told that toe kicks were still used occasionally, but were taught primarily to kick up under the groin when you had captured an opponent’s kicking leg.

(5) It is perhaps understandable that many aspects of old Okinawan karate were changed when teaching changed from small groups of dedicated students, to a larger class structure in Okinawan schools, to GI’s (on Okinawa) or in Japan, to the general public and university students. Emphasis changed. The goal of karate was no longer life-and-death self-defense and personal protection. In the Okinawan school system in the early 1900’s karate was used as a means of physical development. When it was transplanted to Japan karate eventually joined judo and kendo as a means of personal discipline and spiritual development. In its new role painful body conditioning, and especially toe conditioning, were seen as irrelevant. Why take years conditioning the toes when by simply bending them up and kicking with the ball of the foot a student could quickly learn to do an effective front kick?

(6) Many readers of FightingArts.com will recognize Jeff’s name. He is a frequent contributor who writes articles about Zen. He also writes a column under the name of the Zen Mirror. Jeff’s new book “Tje Rhinoceros’s Tale” can be found in FightingArts.com’s e-store under “Books”, in the category “Zen And The Martial Arts.”

(7) This is a very vulnerable point, which some texts consider a death point (known as “perineum” in Traditional Chinese Medicine).

(8) This type of technique is also seen in many styles of jujutsu. In diato-ryu aikijujutsu, for example, this kick is also the finish to the basic technique of Ippon Dori. The technique starts where an opponent’s downward sword cut is stopped and redirected down and to the side by dropping the body forward and down toward the technique while intercepting the opponent’s arm (under the elbow) with your left open hand (catching the impact with the little finger side of the lower palm). The attack is then further redirected down and to the side. Arm bar is applied with a kick to the neck or face, and then body weight is applied to the arm bar to break the elbow. Of course practice is much gentler.

(9) This point is sometimes referred to as the “The Blood Point” because a sharp blow can also effect a major vein running through this area (great saphenous vein) causing the inside of the thigh to turn black and blue.

(10) Te and torite techniques were often taught by some old masters, such as Hohan Soken along with karate and kata. They were often practiced side by side and seen as complementary. Te means hand and it refers to a category of old Okinawan open hand and weapon techniques that existed prior to the development of modern karate. Many historians believe that “te (also known a “ti”)” techniques were combined with Chinese fighting methods during the development of karate (which originally too had different names). Many torite techniques, however, are also embedded within kata, but difficult to recognize. Torite techniques are in some styles referred to a “karamiti” or “kakushu”. They are complementary to what some call “muchini” (drapping and sticky hand movements) used as part of the above.

(11) Koeppel is a 10 dan, and head of a large international karate organization that teaches traditional Okianwan karate based on the teachings of the legendary karate master Hohan Soken. Koeppel has 40 + years of karate experience under the tutelage of some of Okinawan great teachers including Fusei Kise, Yuichi Kuda and Kousai Nishihira– all inheritors of Hohan Soken’s White Crane influenced old-style karate system passed down from Bushi Matsumura, the great Okinawan master and fountainhead of Okinawan karate practice. Koeppel was this author’s first teacher (1959). On my travels to Peoria, Illinois where he is based (a former family business) I was able to continue my relationship with Koeppel. He is very knowledgeable.

(12) Research done by the PPCT Management Systems, Inc. in the early 1980’s, a company specializing in teaching defensive tactics to law enforcement personnel, included the use of specific pressure points to assist in gaining compliance when necessary. Their research found that different types of strikes seem to elicit different muscular reactions. The most reliable motor (muscular) dysfunction (which inhibits secretion of the neural transmitter acetylcholine which acts to fire resistive muscle action) for targets identified to be struck was when the target received maximum kinetic energy transfer. This was achieved with what they called, “the fluid shock wave” strike which “sticks” to the target for one third of a second. This allows weight and forward momentum to dissipate into the target (thick muscle mass), which maximizes kinetic energy transfer. The results included motor dysfunction and mental stunning.


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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com. He has been a student of the martial arts for over 43 years. He first started in judo. Then he added karate as a student of Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black belt in that organization's honbu dojo. Other experience includes judo, aikido, diato-ryu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto Muso-ryu jodo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including Praying mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow) and shuai chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.) and is Vice-President of the DS International Chi Medicine Association. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.


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

toe kicks, tsuma saki, tsumakasaki geri, ashi no yuba , ashi nukite , sokusen, old Okinawan karate, Okinawan karate, bunkai, kata, kata applications, pinan kata


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