by Adam Pease
March 11, 2010
While not a subject of fundamental importance to karate practice, confusion and disagreement is common in a particular detail of many kata: close punch and backfist. The source of this disagreement, as we shall see, is in varying use and description of two related techniques as shown in the Best Karate series.
First, some definitions. Ura-zuki (close punch) is somewhat akin to a boxer's uppercut. It is a close punch delivered at impact with a significantly bent elbow, and with the striking surface being the front of the knuckles, or seiken, as shown in the first picture on page 16 of Best Karate vol 1 "Comprehensive".
Ura-ken (backfist) is delivered with the same bent elbow at impact, but the striking surface is the back of the knuckles. It is shown in the second picture on page 16 of Best Karate vol 1 "Comprehensive".
The course of the weapon is different in each case. In backfist, the upper arm comes into position drawing a line to the target (or possibly past the target), with the forearm making an acute angle with respect to the upper arm, and the forearm and fist then whip into place.
In close punch, as with all other punches, the forearm draws a line to the target, with the fist leading.
The confusion comes when in kata, particularly the Tekki kata and Jion, the opponent is imaginary, and the chamber and final position of each technique is identical, and so it is not obvious what was the original intent. In each kata, the performer readies the technique with the right fist at the right ear, and winds up with the fist at roughly shoulder height and in front.
A close punch would see the elbow drop to the right side with the forearm making roughly a 90 degree angle and then fist and elbow would extend forward until "contact".
A backfist would see the elbow stay high, coming to the front before (or while) dropping to whip the forearm and fist forward.
On page 98 of Best Karate vol 5 we see the first occurrence of this ambiguous situation. The description states that the technique is ura-zuki and yet the first frame of step 9b seems to show the elbow coming down for a backfist, rather than thrusting up for a close punch. 23b is similar. Tekki Nidan does not show any intermediate frames, and so does not impact this controversy. Tekki Sandan steps 16b,22 and 36 are similar to Tekki Shodan, although step 22 shows a tantalizingly more distinct position for the elbow away from the body, as with backfist. For Jion, page 107 of Best Karate vol 8 also states the technique is ura-zuki, but the photographs make an even clearer case for backfist. The elbow continuously moves to the front, rather than dropping first and then rising as it must for a close punch.
Page 123 of vol 8 should settle the issue. The text clearly states that both techniques are an option. "Immediately after the X block to the front, punch to the upper level with right backfist, or finish with a close punch just below the opponent's nose." The picture shows backfist as the application, as in all the other pictures of this technique.
There is a very strong case that either close punch or backfist is acceptable in these kata and the discrepancy between the photographs and the text were indicative of that fact, and therefore did not merit correction by master Nakayama.