Sagurite. For real.

There was a recent post on the Facebook group “Karate Nerds,” a really good and diverse group with an open approach to communication. The post referred to a photo with a short text description taken from a translation of the original Japanese text. It went as follows.

I’m currently reading a Soke 10th DAN’s karate book and sometimes I wonder if I should laugh or cry. As a first example (more to follow): the image Sagurite uke. According to the book, this block is found at the end of the Passai Kata (yes it is) and it was originally used to look for a nearby opponent in the dark. So a block with which one looks for people in the dark.


In a slightly scornful attitude, it describes a “Soke 10th DAN” using this technique as a “block with which one looks for people in the dark.” Following the passage “this block is found at the end of the Passai Kata,” the poster adds “yes it is” in brackets, probably to prove his authority on the matter.

It has long been known that many translations from Japanese to English are directly incorrect or at least inaccurate and insufficient. The translator of the English version is Shinzato Katsuhiko, who was not only a student of the person shown in the photo, but also studied English and English Literature at the University of the Ryukyus and then studied Applied Linguistics in the United States at Indiana University. Therefore, there can hardly be any doubt as to the correct translation of the text passage.

On the other hand, mistakes happen all the time. As an editor myself, I know this very well. Here is an example. In the “Encyclopedia of Okinawa Karate-do Kobudo” (2008), the oldest Western reference to karate was presented. It was taken from Basil Hall’s famous description of Okinawa Karate, which he witnessed in 1816 on board of a ship in Naha harbor. The transliteration writes “the boxer’s potion of difence,” when in fact the text phrase is “boxer’s position of defence.” Above-mentioned Shinzato Katsuhiko, together with Takamiyagi Shigeru, were the editors and main contributors of this work, and both were professors of the English language and two of the best persons in Okinawa karate.

While this is certainly a humorous example, these things happen. Even monkeys fall from trees, they say. This might serve as a reminder that, when reading books, critical thinking means you need to read and think actively, and sometimes you need to verify a claim by yourself.

Even though many 21st century people might find this amusing, it is in fact not too far-fetched that persons in old Okinawa might have had to fight in a pitchblack environment, and fragments of this reality have become traditions in karate.

However, since I studied in Okinawa with the son of the person in the photo, I wanted to know exactly what the original text meant. I looked up one Japanese book of the author and found the photo, yet without any further description except “The form of sagurite”. I couldn’t locate the other book so I contacted a friend who has a lot of collectibles and indeed he had it and quickly sent me the page in question. I immediately noticed that the Japanese text was way longer than in the English translation.

First of all, the poster obviously used a recently and privately published German bridge translation, which he then re-translated to English for the text of his post. Obviously, he also didn’t look up and comparing the English version by Shinzato. A bridge translation is a translation of a translation. In professional editing circles bridge translations are an inacceptable practice because it not only continues errors made in the first translation, but also might add additional errors. Imagine translation of legal papers, contracts, electrical designs, code etc. You have to go back to the original sources. In short, a bridge translation is unreliable and shouldn’t be used at all.

And just like that, the German bridge translation has several semantic nuances and terminology that are slightly flawed, if not straightforward inaccurate. And then, the poster translated that flawed German translation back to English. You get the problem, right?  

Let’s move on.

The English text is as follows:

10. Sagurite-Uke (Searching-hand block). This is seen in the last part of Passai kata and was originally used to search for the opponent at close range in the dark. Used only in Passai (Fig 32).

Nagamine Shoshin: The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do. Tuttle Publishing, 1st paperback edition, 1998, p. 93.

Fair enough. It is something similar to the meaning previously mentioned. At a first glance, and from the knowledge of the kata, I immediately thought “keep in mind the verb ‘search’ here and check for its nuance.”

Without further ado, let’s turn to the original text passage.

10. Sagurite-uke (Passai)

Standing in a cat-foot-stance, making a double-handed torite, it is a posture to detect the opponent’s movements in darkness.

Torite and sagurite have the same shape, and as in case of torite, sagurite should be performed in a quick movement, just as in shutō-uke, and the palms and fingers should be flexible.

Sagurite literally sounds out the enemy not by vision, but by muscle sense, so release the tension from the muscles of your fists and arms, and move calmly and softly, as if it there was motion in stillness.

The footwork of the cat-foot-stance is also performed as if in the dark, so it is performed by raising the foot to avoid obstacles, which since long ago is called nami-gaeshi.

Nagamine Shōshin: Shijitsu to dentō o mamoru Okinawa no karatedō (The Karate-dō of Okinawa – Preserving its History and Tradition). Tōkyō, Shin Jinbutsu Ōraisha 1975, p. 148.

So what does it mean?

I mentioned before that the verb “search” struck me. It is simply too vague to understand the nuance of its meaning. The noun saguri 探り means sounding out; probing; probe; spy. The verb stem is saguru 探る, meaning (1) to feel around for; to fumble for; to grope for; to search for; to look for; (2) to inquire; to scout out; to investigate; to probe into; to spy on; to sound out; to explore. An example is te saguri de 手探りで, meaning: by touch, by groping, by fumbling.

Within the liberty of a translator, and after checking various dictionaries and synonyms, I decided to use the verb “detect” here, within the context of the above described lexical meaning of saguri / saguru.

This is also because a part of the Japanese text, which is not found in the English translation, clearly describes what it means: To sound out the enemy not by vision, but by muscle sense. Now, “muscle sense” is an obsolete medical term. As can be found in English Wikipedia,

In 1826, Charles Bell expounded the idea of a ‘muscle sense,’ which is credited as one of the first descriptions of physiologic feedback mechanisms.


Today this is known in English as proprioception, also called kinaesthesia (or kinesthesia), and refers to the “sense of self-movement, force, and body position.”

So what sagurite refers to, I guess, is to deduce tactile information from contact with the opponent’s body or weapon and is related to the highly-developed human ability to operate in three-dimensional space through touching and feeling the surroundings. It is the basis for tactile response which can be seen in kakie, or in the sticky hands of Wing Tsung or Taichi and elsewhere. In HEMA, it was called “Fühlen” (to feel) and it is a concept found in any and all martial arts. It is therefore of high technical and historical value to find this concept manifested in the technique of an old kata of Okinawa karate, and described in photo and text in a 1975 book by Nagamine Shōshin.

This matter should be deeply considered by practitioners of classical karate.

© 2023, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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