When I first started Karate, most people, especially our Oriental masters, would teach that the primary function of the Hiki-Te hand (the one that pulls back to the hip) was to increase the power of the other hand going out in a punch/strike/block. This is undoubtedly a useful training method for beginners as it helps to teach them to rotate their hips and as such this explanation was not questioned very much in the early days.
However, with the advent of Mixed Martial Arts/Cage Fighting and the Internet, such ideas have come under more and more scrutiny. Boxers, Kickboxers and other such stylists can generate powerful blows whilst still keeping the other high as a guard to the head. When experienced Karateka (and other traditional martial artists) start to experiment, they find that they can too. Hiki-Te is simply not necessary for generating power once good technique is established.
Over time many people, including myself, have written about how the Hiki-Te hand can be used for grabbing and pulling; to take an opponent of balance to make them vulnerable to any further attack or restraint. Whilst I still stand by this, I also think that there is another element to Hiki-Te which is overlooked by the vast majority of martial artists.
Iain Abernethy is an author, Karate historian, internationally recognised authority on the practical application of Karate, one of my influences and one of the nicest, least egotistical people you’ll ever meet in the martial arts world. In his brilliant book, Bunkai-Jutsu: The Practical Application of Karate Kata, in the history section he writes about the Minamoto samurai who fled from Japan to Okinawa in the 11th Century and their influence on Okinawan martial arts. He wrote:
“One part of Minamoto bujitsu that had an influence on the development of Karate was the idea that all motion is essentially the same. Whether striking, grappling or wielding a weapon, the Minamoto samurai taught that all combative methods relied upon similar physical movements. An individual would be taught a particular physical movement and would then be shown how that movement could be adapted to achieve varying goals. The results of this combat philosophy can still be seen in modern day Karate. It is not uncommon to see a single movement in a kata (patterns/forms) to be given several different applications”.
Note: whether striking, grappling or wielding a weapon!
Back in Karate’s formative days, carrying a weapon would have been natural and probably even expected! Even later in Okinawan history after the Japanese invaded in 1609 and imposed a ban on carrying weapons, the Okinawans still secretly practised weapon training with improvised weapons such as farming tools, household items, even fans and oars. So weapon training was a fully integrated part of Karate training back those days.
This is logical for any self defence system. Even today when in most Westernised countries we are specifically banned from carrying weapons; it’s still natural to improvise and pick up a bottle, glass, brick, stick or whatever might be to hand. Unfortunately most modern martial arts training focuses primarily on unarmed to unarmed combat, so many martial artists instinctively want to put things down or away and empty their hands of any improvised weapons as that’s how they’re taught to fight! But if we are law abiding citizens who don’t look for trouble, then the chances are that any altercation that we get into is likely to be with a non-law abiding citizen. If they don’t abide by the law, then there is a good chance that they could be carry a weapon (or at least more prepared to use an improvised weapon).
When Funakoshi took Karate to Japan in the 1920’s, he taught weapons. However, after the war during the American occupation, weapons training was banned and probably for the first time in Karate history, weapons and unarmed combat were not taught together. By the time the Americans withdrew from Japan, this divorce of skills had been near enough completed and the unarmed only version of Karate spread around the world with few if any people questioning it.
So back to the Hiki-Te hand! If you are striking or blocking, it is not always necessary to pull the other hand back to the hip (unless you’ve trapped the assailants hand you and are pulling them off-balance). However, with many weapons, especially long weapons such as the staff (bo), the front hand is generally used for moving the weapon towards it’s target or to where it needs to be (maybe a block) and sometimes the rear hand is used to “anchor” the weapon to the body for greater power and absorption of impact. In a society where carrying weapons is the norm, longer weapons gives an advantage. So if you were practising to cover striking, grappling and weapons, it would seem natural that in many of your basic movements you would automatically default to the Hiki-Te position for the weapon carrying applications. Anybody studying KoboJutsu (Okinawan weapons) or similar will already know all this.
However, only a very small percentage of people training today do actually train weapons (I don’t) so will not necessarily have any concept of this.