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I often hear this idiom from karate YouTube channels.

A strike is a block is a lock is a throw

In my experience the movements for blocks, throws, strikes and joint locks are completely different (although joint locks and throws have similarities in that you often use the lock to throw). But then I'm not actually experienced in Karate but rather in other Japanese martial arts.

Is the idiom true generally and I just can't see it?
Is it true for karate moves only?

Or am I taking it too literally?

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The phrase comes from karate's unfortunate history:

  1. as karate popularized rapidly, first across Japan and Korea and then to the USA via GIs, it became common for students to learn forms without applications or with cursory explanations
  2. those who learned the meaningless movement in turn teach their students the movements as strikes or "blocks", as invented applications or simplifications to teach large groups (especially children)
  3. a subset of karateka realize that some movements in the forms make no sense as strikes or blocks, sparking a widespread effort to reverse engineer applications from their neutered curriculum
  4. these reverse-engineering projects exist in a social-political context in which high-status people still teach the now-standardized forms as a series of strikes and blocks; thus "a strike is a block is a lock is a throw" is invented as a polite euphemism so alternative applications can coexist without stepping on anyone's toes or admitting broken transmission

Even though this widespread reverse-engineering project sometimes arrives at a correct application, I find it a low-reward way to organize training, and so I find this phrase's hand-waviness rather unappealing. It is mostly useful as a way to teach large groups a dance based on false pretenses of (often nonsensical) punches and blocks, while leaving open the option to teach select students "hidden" or "alternative" applications involving techniques borrowed from other arts.

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    I am afraid this answer is spot-on. It is quite frequent that because of rough similarities, e.g. the sequence block, chambering, punching with the right arm is interpreted as "one could punch with the block, grab and pull with the chambering, entangling the arm, and the punch essentially becomes an arm lock" in bunkai. Unfortunately, 99.9% of the ex-post rationalisations only "work" with compliant partners due to weird positioning, lack of speed/timing, biomechanical weaknesses, and lack of defence against counters. Looks good to most people, is not applicable in fights though. Jul 14, 2022 at 8:15
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    The real tragedy is that before the stylisation of the katas, these moves actually were supposed to be punches, grabs, locks, throws, etc. and used to look and be trained accordingly. The real pretension is that contemporary kata would actually resemble the original moves enough to do the transition back imho. You just learn the wrong biomechanics, power generation, positioning, range, etc. If you look at the earliest footage of kata, they look really awkward and as if they wouldn't properly execute basic techniques exactly because they do train something else. Jul 14, 2022 at 8:23
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Yes. You are probably taking it too literally.

I don’t know much about Karate or any other Japanese martial system. But in my experience with various Chinese martial arts schools there’s a similar concept that my current teacher translates as deflect-attack.

The idea is that you should not see deflection (or blocking) and attack (be it a punch, or a kick or a throw as two unconnected moves that just happen to follow each other in a sequence.

In the arts I am practicing (and I have a strong suspicion that in all martial art practices beyond beginner level), this means that when blocking or deflecting the opponent’s attack, you should also lay the foundation of your counter. The best deflection is the one that not only protects me from your punch, it also lines up my counter punch and disrupts your follow up.

In that sense, deflection (or blocking) is part of the same move that becomes an attack or a throw or whatever is going to be your countermove. And thinking of these things as one continuous move regardless of its final shape is the mental model one should assume when free-playing. One should flow right into the other that should flow seamlessly into the next move and so on and so on.

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  • That would make sense, but I have seen that a lot of karate students don't really make the distinction between their blocks and strikes in kata. Which makes me wonder if it's more literal than this.
    – Huw Evans
    Jul 12, 2022 at 18:55

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