Note: The block called Soto Uke in some styles is called Uchi Uke (inside block) in other styles.
Bearing in mind that much of Karate’s original bunkai has been lost, and that Karate is largely based on Kung Fu, it is good to look at similar Kung Fu movements and how Kung Fu practitioners apply them. By looking into our roots we can learn more about our own style and read across from what the Okinawan masters probably learnt from the Chinese masters. The Okinawan masters would have adapted the movements to suit their own physiques and needs, which is fine as the Chinese masters did exactly the same. That is why there is such a vast array of Kung Fu styles.
When a beginner looks at different styles of Kung Fu, Karate, TKD etc., they see lots of differences. However, the experienced practitioner sees many similarities. This why we are able to learn from each other, to increase our knowledge and understanding of our own style, without necessarily having to study other styles in depth.
Firstly, lets define which block we are talking about. What Shotokan Karate (my style) calls Soto Uke (Outside Block, because it comes from the outside), some other styles call Uchi Uke (Inside Block, because it travels to the inside). I am talking about the block that starts from just by the ear and travels inward across the body (same direction as the hip rotation), stopping roughly in line with the opposite shoulder.
Although in many Japanese and Korean martial arts we were originally taught that Soto Uke is for blocking a straight punch aimed at our body, it has become more and more obvious that is an unlikely.
Firstly, most people outside of the dojo/dojang, do not usually attack with straight punches, it is usually haymakers. As we are more likely to be attacked by a thug then another martial artist, why do we train so much for an attack that we are not likely to be attacked by?
Secondly, even if we were attacked by another martial artist, how often do use a Soto Uke in sparing. We virtually never use is because it is too slow to be used as a block. It is fine in a pre-arranged sparing routine, but is extremely difficult to make it work when the attacks come at random.
Conclusion: it is quite useless as a block when used in the traditional manner.
Anybody who has been interested in alternative bunkai for any time, will probably have seen the humble Soto Uke use for other purposes, such as arm-locks or close in striking etc. This will be covered later in subsequent postings.
However, for anybody who still thinks that the primary function of a Soto Uke is to block a straight punch to the torso, should have a look at the video below.
But first some explanation!
The video is taken from a F.A.S.T. Defence course. F.A.S.T. stands for Fear, Adrenalin, Stress Training. Many people when under the stress of a real life confronation, freeze. This even happens to high grade martial artists. F.A.S.T Defence (amongst other things) trains people by taking then into this adrenalised state, then making them respond to overcome the “freeze” reflex that many of us have. The idea is to provoke the student into an adrenalised state. They get to respond full power against a “Bulletman”. That is a man in padded suit with a bullet shaped helmet, so that he can take blows and kicks full power. The student does not have to worry about control in their adrenalised state. There is more to it than just that, and the training is appropriate for both trained martial artists or for people who have never done a days training in their life. Having done one of their courses myself, I would highly recommend them.
So why is that relevant to us and our Soto Uke?
When people are under that kind of pressure, they often extend one hand forward to restrain their attacker, whilst bringing their other hand back behind their ear, before swinging it round and striking hammer-fist to their attackers head. This intuitive method, used by untrained people is very close to our Soto Uke (and the Wing Chun whipping punch)!
Could it be that the masters of the past took what is an instinctive human reaction and developed it? Take a natural reaction and enhance it? We often hear that modern systems like Krav Maga build on instinctive human reactions and when Krav Maga is adopted by law enforcement agencies around the world (including the FBI and the US Secret Service), then they must be doing something right.
So is it possible that our past masters did exactly the same thing, by building on instinctive reflexes?
We will never know for sure, but I think it is highly likely. The video below comes from a F.A.S.T. Defence training session, where you will see the student reacting in way described above. Have a look and decide for yourself if this instinctive reaction could be the route of the Soto Uke.
Warning: It contains foul language, so check who is around you first: