Monday 13 August 2018


Ryu (Tatsu—Dragon), Ko (Tora—Tiger) and Kaku (Tsuru—Crane) are the three most important animals in karate’s early origins from China and Okinawa. In Asai style Shotokan karate, there are other animals referenced for different techniques and their applications (such as the Hebi/Snake, Saru/Monkey, Kuma/Bear and Hyo/Leopard; however, these all originate from RYU KO KAKU.

Today let’s look at RYU KO KAKU in isolation.


Dragon’s, needless to say, are mythological creatures; that being said, they are well known as representatives of the physical power and intelligence. In martial arts karate ‘RYU’ represents tornados. Two or three tornados combined creates a dragon like image. This underpins the unpredictable rising and falling tenshin (rotation) found in Asai Karate. Kata reference: the three advanced ‘tenshin’ forms: Hachimon, Senka and Rakuyo. We also see this in Kaze no te (Hushu), Unsu and Kaminariarashi, amongst others.


The tiger is for relaxation and flexibility so one can target something instantly. Martial arts karate’s `KO` is therefore best explained as agility and explosiveness, which is based on the combination of ground-power and junansei. In sum, it produces the rapid reaction techniques’, which are typical in standard Shotokan-Ryu karate (and all of the other Ryuha/Kaiha, for that matter). Kata reference: Bassai Dai, Jitte Sochin, Kashu, etc.


The crane is refined technique for impacting with precise weapons to weak targets, trapping, hooking and so forth. It is typical to use various open hand karada no buki (weapons of the body), which can be speedily applied with little or limited physical strength. Such movements were important to Asai Sensei purely based on his small stature and, indeed, limits of brute strength. Kata reference: Seiryu, Gankaku, Kakuyoku Shodan, Nidan and Sandan, and so on.

Lastly it is important to point out that in traditional Japanese karate, unlike the Chinese martial arts, THE REPRESENTATION OF THESE ANIMALS IS USUALLY NOT SO OVERT; moreover, we mix them more subtly (I am by no means suggesting 'better'; merely, again, not so overtly). Hence, the overall collective concept of ‘RYU-KO-KAKU’ in traditional karate, when perfected, is seamlessly expressed in jissen-kumite. 

Furthermore, there are a couple of others points, which I will only briefly touch on today... Firstly, many karada no buki specifically correspond with the type of animal. For example, the boshiken is `RYU`, the hitosashiyubi-ipponken is `KO` and the kakushiken is `KAKU`. Secondly, two of these weapons of the body are not in post-war Shotokan—largely due to the `sportification` of karate; nevertheless, Asai Sensei brought them back.

Taken as a whole, this approach to karate is for survival in the face of a brutal and sudden assault. In sum, this IS 'THE TRADITIONAL WAY'; that is, it fulfils the original external purpose of Tode/Karate. While this ‘Way of Karate’ is not the mainstream, those of us who follow it must preserve it for future generations: this includes the Shotokan styles take on ‘RYU-KO-KAKU’.

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2018).

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