FORMS IN OKINAWA KARATE
by Stanic Milos (
fighting choreographies carried on from father to son for generation.
Hence, majority of practitioners today do not like to practice katas and
tend to prefer free fights (sparing), because it seems that kata practice
is not much applicable in real situations. However, in order to get master
certificate in any karate style, you have to learn bunch of katas.
Old tradition – one kata, one style
historical sources testify that in past situation was completely
different. Only few masters knew more than one or two katas. Why is this?
Why today average practitioners know over 10 different katas?
karate was secret. Trainings were individual and tradition was passed only
to family members or dedicated students who got a chance to practice with
famous master. Karate was practiced exclusively among warrior class
members – pechin. Back in that time, life was very cruel and karate
was taken extremely seriously. In certain situations, it could mean life
or death. Traditional okinawan karate was for self-defense only.
Gichin Funakoshi in his writings says that one kata is enough for
self-defense. Kata usually contain few throws, few joint locks and bunch
of punches, strikes and kicks, which are enough for effective use in real
confrontation. Each kata is separate fighting tradition and therefore
practicing several different katas means knowing more techniques, which
anyway does not raise effectiveness in self-defense, but on a contrary.
This is a reason, why in past one used to master only one or two katas.
In ancient times, teachers
rarely accepted new students. You had to have very good recommendation and
iron will to keep up with ruthless training. Master would teach you only
one fighting tradition – one kata.
To become proficient in only one kata was very hard, but trying to learn
several fighting traditions was almost impossible. Those who knew several
katas, were usually high ranking okinawan officials, who had enough time
to dedicate themselves to research of various fighting traditions and who
had enough financial funds and possibilities to travel to China. Only few
had this opportunity and most famous ones are Kanryo Higashionna, Bushi
Mutsumura and Seisho Aragaki.
Bushi Matsumura, Seisho Aragaki
After 1900, a
group of instructors feared that old karate traditions will be forgot and
lost forever and decided to promote karate on Okinawa. Their goal was to
include karate into regular school program and military practice. However,
old karate was not suitable for children or for group training, so master
Itosu modified karate, expelling all dangerous techniques and focusing on
kata practice without revealing most of practical applications (bunkai).
Karate was transformed from devastating self-defense method to mystical
recreational activity. It was birth of modern karate – karatedo.
was author of this new kind of karate and he’s ideas were supported by
many: Gichin Funakoshi (Shotokan), Kenwa Mabuni (Shito ryu),
Chojun Miyagi (Goju ryu), etc. They were traveling around Ryukyu
Islands demonstrating karate and at the same time, they attempted to learn
as much new katas as they could from the old karate masters. This way they
tried to save tradition from being forgotten. Since than, modern styles
have many katas included in their curriculum. For example, shotokan
preserve 26 katas and shito style even over 50.
schools are focused on wining competitions, recreation and charging fees.
Self-defense is not of primal importance. Instructors are promoting
Hollywood type of karate, demonstrating several dozens of good-looking
techniques per training. This flashy approach guarantees many new
students, but this is not effective training for self-defense.
Unfortunately, training like this produce “black belt” that knows 20 katas
and hundreds of techniques, but is defeated on street, failing to resolve
basic self-defense situations.
means “form”, “style” or “pattern”. Oral tradition
says, “Karate is kata” and confirms that every kata is actually
stand-alone fighting system. When I say this, I have in mind advanced
forms that existed on Okinawa prior 1900.
karate training is focused on practicing of single advanced kata
for several months or years. Each kata has its own kihon, basic
techniques that should be practiced on makiwara. After that, one
must try to execute and understand sequences found in kata. All movements
have practical application (bunkai), which should be practiced with
partner (kumite) reflecting realistic self-defense situations.
Always bear in mind that kata is authentic fighting system.
Ready positions – kamaekata (pasai, kushanku, pinan, wanshu, naihanchi),
if one kata represents one fighting style, then this could be salutation
positions of various schools/traditions, as it is in China.
Motobu, in his book “Okinawa kempo”, names different okinawan karate
styles as kushanku style, pasai style, naifanchi style, etc. Therefore,
shito ryu, shotokan, goju ryu cannot be considered as fighting styles, but
rather heritages or traditions.
If every kata
is fighting style for itself, then it is obviously ridiculous to learn 26
kata, because it is unnecessary accumulation of techniques. It is the same
as when person would carry 26 guns. Only one gun is enough if you know how
to use it.
conclude that techniques that look similar, in different katas, probably
do not have same meaning because we are talking here about different
fighting traditions. For example, it would be silly to think that shuto
uchi in kata Pasai have same usage as shuto uchi in kata
Kushanku. On the other side, it is possible that techniques appear
different, but that they have similar application (bunkai). This is
because all forms deals with habitual acts of violence and “there are
many ways to climb up the mountain”.
1000 years of
I know that
this, which I will try to bring out, will sound like sacrilege to many;
however, theory of 1000 years long tradition of karate is just a myth.
According to many historical researches, also taking into consideration
solid evidence, written documents and oral tradition, we can state that
old karate (tote) starts to appear in XVIII century on Okinawa.
This new fighting is imported from Fukien (China)
and flourishes in XIX century among warrior class (pechin). In XX,
century karate is modernized and spread worldwide.
mentioning of karate is from beginning of XVIII century, when eminent
scholar Teijunsoku (1663-1734) writes:” No matter how you may excel in
the art of te, and in your scholastic endeavors, nothing is more
important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”
First Chinese quan fa instructors visited Okinawa and
passed some fighting techniques.
1762. – Chinese fighting instructor, under name
Kushanku, visited Okinawa (Oshima hiki notes).
Tode Sakugava (1733-1815),
Origins of Shorin and Shorei tradition. Many okinawans
traveled to China to learn quan fa.
Many Chinese masters visited Okinawa and instructed
chuan fa. (Ason
Wai Shinzan (Wanshu),
Iwah, Anan (Chinto),Ryuru Ko
Seisho Aragaki (1840-1918),
Kojo Taitei (1837-1917), kojo ryu
Bushi Matsumura (1809-1901), shorin ryu
Kanryo Higashiona (1853-1917),
Kambun Uechi (1877-1948), uechi
Nakaima Norisato (1850-1927),
Kosaku Matsumora (1829-1898),
Development of modern karatedo and its popularization
Karate was demonstrated for Japanese Emperor.
Karate was included in elementary schools curriculum in
Itosu Ankoh (1832-1915),
Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957),
Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953),
Kenva Mabuni (1889-1954),
Motobu Choki (1871-1944),
Japanese instructors spread modern karate worldwide.
1948 - Japan Karatedo Association was founded.
1957 - First Japan national championship.
1975 - First World Cup in America (IAKF).
Hironiri Otsuka (1892-1982)
Masatoshi Nakayama, Hidetaka Nishiyama, Hironiri
If we take
into consideration the oldest oral tradition and written sources, we will
see that it is about individuals who lived on the beginning of XVIII
century. They were pechin (warrior class members – village militia,
royal guards, tax collectors, etc.), who traveled to China to learn
Chinese fighting methods in order to improve their ability to deal with
their professional duties. In those days, weapon techniques (kobudo)
were more important, but gradually empty hand techniques became more
popular. For example, famous Tode Sakugawa and Bushi Mutsumura, both,
traveled to Satsuma and Fukien to learn weapon techniques. There are many
weapon katas that still exist on Okinawa, which bear names of these two
century, Okinawa nation was small and learning of fighting methods was
privilege for pechin class only. Even if you were a pechin,
that still did not guarantee that you will learn karate, maybe some basic
weapon techniques. From this, we can see that we are dealing here with
small group of people and that there is little possibility of existence of
some great karate masters, before those known to us, that are not
mentioned in folk tails or that do not exist in official written records.
Therefore, overall, we are talking about 300 years of tradition. I am not
saying that there were no other fighting methods on Okinawa
previously, but this was not karate.
Karate was imported from
China and its basic characteristic is that techniques are passed through
forms (kata). Karate is old as are the oldest kata on
very differ and on first sight, it seems that they do not have anything in
common. However, seisan kata seems to be most widespread form in
karate. This kata is present in all styles - shorin, goju, uechi,
ryueryu, toon, shito.... In modern karate (shotokan), this
kata is renamed in hangetsu. There is much evidence suggesting that
seisan is probably the oldest form in karate.
If we go a
little bit in past, we will notice that seisan was present in both
then existing traditions (shorin and shorei). Chotoku Kyan
learned this kata as basic from famous Bushi Mutsumura (1809–1901,
shorin ryu). Chojun Miyagi learned sanchin and seisan as
basic forms from Kanryo Higashiona (1853-1915, shorei ryu).
Chojun Miyagi mentions
katas sanchin, seisan and naihanchi
as basic – beginners forms. We also know that sanchin (modified
happoren) and seisan were basic in training for majority of
ancient chuan fa styles (Tiger boxing, Crane boxing, Monk fist,
Dragon boxing, Lion boxing, Dog boxing...etc) on Fukien (China).
Therefore, we can assume that these forms were used in same way on Okinawa
for basic training.
Chojun Miyagi i Chotoku Kyan
learning any advanced katas, one must learn basics (correct body position
(kamae), stepping, breathing, muscle contraction and simple
techniques). Both forms seisan and sanchin are good for
beginners. Sanchin (“three steps”) is the simplest form of all
(step in – assume guard – punch). In fact, this kata is beginning of
seisan kata (“13 steps”). Seisan is consisted of basic
kicks, punching sequences and body shifting. It represents firm foundation
for advanced katas.
karate katas are also present in China. During time these katas were
modified and it is often case that it is impossible to compare them today.
However, the names remain.
Sanchin - Seisan
Table 2, list of karate katas that
exist in Fukien today
Of course, it
is not simple, as it seems. Some karate forms cannot be found in China and
only exist on Okinawa. This is the case with kushanku, chinto
and wanshu forms. There are evidences showing, that these forms are
not modern day inventions.
katas still exist in China, but under different name. Maybe, okinawans
never learned original name of style/form and named kata out of respect to
their teacher? Maybe, Chinese teachers never taught a form, but only
techniques, so after that okinawans created katas to remember all
techniques. It is also possible that original Chinese form is lost long
We do not
have answers to these questions, but tradition says that these katas got
names after chuan fa masters who came from China and taught
that are considered traditional are in fact modern day inventions. These
forms are not of Chinese origin, but are created by okinawans, after 1900.
I will mention just some of them:
Shoshin Nagamine and C. Miyagi
Naihanchi 1,2 & 3
Kushanku sho, pasai sho, gojushiho sho
Shinsei, kensho, kenshu, juroku, kenpaku, myojo, shimpa, hapo sho,
shiho koshokun, aojagi, ...
arises, why would famous karate masters, like Itosu, Mabuni or Miyagi,
create new kata? Were traditional forms not enough? There is much evidence
on this subject in kobudo also.
Some of these
katas are invented to make practice easier to beginners (taikyoku, pinan...),
while others came up as a result of someone’s life long research (sunsu,
ananku...). For example, Kenwa Mabuni created kata shimpa in order to keep
knowledge he got from sensei Uechi. Who knows, maybe similar once happened
with kata kushanku, chinto or wanshu?
At the end,
we see that karate was imported from China, three hundred years ago and
that in those days one kata represented one style. Then, after 1900,
okinawans invented whole bunch of new katas. So, where is a point in
this? At first sight, it seems that okinawans are responsible for ruining
their own heritage. This is not true, because before they even thought to
create new kata and to give personal interpretation, they perfectly
researched existing style/tradition. Point is that you should first
understand old forms, before proceeding with giving any shape to your own
karate, which can be different depending on personal goals – self-defense,
To search for the old is to
understand the new.
We talk about advanced katas. This does not include
beginners katas as sanchin, seisan, etc.
Motobu family fighting system (udundi) is very
old. However, this tradition is very different from karate and has no
forms (kata). This style is not imported from China, it is more
likely to be of Okinawan or Japanese origin.
Unfortunately old style Naihanchi kata is lost; today
Naihanchi is modified Itosu's version.
(1999) Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques, 2nd
Edition. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, Co.
(1976) Karatedo: My Way of Life. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
(1988) Karatedo Nyumon. Tokyo: Kodansha International. Tr. by John
(1999) Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadi, Vol. 2. Boston:
Charles E. Tuttle, Co.
(1995) The Bible of Karate - Bubishi. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, Co.
(1932) Watashi no Toudijutsu (My Karate). Tokyo: Toudi Fukyukai.
(1986) Tales of Okinawa's Great Karate and Sumo Masters
(1978) The Essence of Okinawan Karate-do, Charles E. Tuttle
you can find excellent video tapes about okinawa karate.