Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ya can't get they-ahh from hee-yahhh

Goju-ryu posture very similar to the
opening posture in one of the first two
Pinan kata. In the Shotokan Heian
version, the stance is much longer
and much less mobile.

I came across an interesting post the other day on an Internet forum. It was by a guy who was a bit disillusioned but still searching for meaning in his kata--kata that he had been practicing for more than twenty years, I think. He was asking all the right questions, it seems to me: what message was contained in the repetition of techniques in kata? Are there patterns or sequences of techniques, and if so what do they signify? Are there themes that certain kata focus on? The problem was that he practiced Shotokan karate--a style, it seems to me, that is so far removed from its Okinawan origins as to make it nearly impossible to determine the original intent (or original bunkai) of any of the movements that make up the kata.

The stances of Shotokan
are generally wider and longer
than their Shorin antecedents.
After doing a little foraging on the Internet, I found that this searching into the meaning of Shotokan kata is not really new at all. Apparently certain Shotokan practitioners have been bucking the system for years--I'm only hinting at the chilling effects powerful international organizations may have on individual initiative and any questioning of the official line--practitioners like Bryce Fleming, Elmar Schmeisser, Bill Burgar, and John Vengel. Fleming even cites some of my own thoughts on kata analysis in a nicely written article titled "Bunkai: Returning Kata to the core of Karate," though I'm not sure he understood what I was trying to say in every case, which may very well be my own fault, as I'm not sure any of my ideas are applicable to any other art than Goju-ryu. But it is interesting to me that there is an attempt to place kata and the study of kata applications back in the forefront of popular karate study, and Shotokan may very well be the most popular karate style in the world. The problem is, how do you reconstruct the original intent (bunkai) of a kata after the kata has been changed? It's like trying to figure out what Shakespeare was saying in Macbeth after only watching the episode of The Simpsons that referenced it, or as someone once put it, reconstructing the original hits when all you have are the Weird Al Yankovic versions. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but still.

Of course, not all of the movements have been altered, but if one movement in a sequence is altered enough, it will alter how one may interpret the rest of the sequence. Correct me if I'm wrong, since I'm certainly no authority on Shorin-ryu, but if you change a neko-ashi-dachi (cat stance) to a kokutsu dachi (back stance), as Shotokan does with its Heian versions of the Pinan series, it seems to me that you will be hard pressed to "see" the kick (whether a kick with the knee or the foot) in the sequence. And once you change the cat stance to a back stance, the upper body and arms are also re-oriented in relation to the possible attacker, so they may further alter how one interprets the techniques. One could certainly argue, as many do, that there's no guarantee that even any school of Okinawan karate--Goju, Uechi, or Shorin--has preserved the original way that any particular kata was performed; they've all undergone change (though that's just an assumption in itself and with no more certitude really than to argue that nothing has changed). But that still doesn't mean that all changes are equal--that the bunkai you find in Shotokan is as valid as the bunkai you find in Shorin kata.
All of this, of course, begs the question: Are all versions of kata equally valid? Is the Shotokan version of a kata (and by implication the bunkai) as valid as the Shorin version of the same kata? Is the Isshinryu version of a kata as valid as the Goju version of the same kata? What about more minor differences we find in Meibukan or Shodokan or Jundokan or Shoreikan versions of the same kata? Is it all equally valid because you can, with varying degrees of effort and imaginative interpretation, manage to make a bunkai that fits the kata movements? It won't be the same bunkai necessarily, but so what?! You got a problem with that?

Well, yes. I actually think these are troubling questions, though I know they don't seem to bother the vast majority of karate practitioners out there. Explaining kata movement, or at least the debate over it, is as popular among Shotokan practitioners as it is among the practitioners of the various Okinawan styles apparently, at least after you tire of the tournaments and such. And it would seem that the majority of people who practice karate are pretty satisfied with what they're getting. Otherwise, I can only hope, there would be more people out there pointing fingers and declaring that "the emperor has no clothes," because it's fairly obvious that a lot of the bunkai out there is crap.  The problem is that even though you may have a bunkai to explain a technique that has been altered--as the example of the change in neko-ashi-dachi above--in altering the kata, you have not only altered the bunkai, but you more than likely have altered the themes the kata is exploring and probably the principles of the system as well.

And it can get even more problematic than that. Fleming, citing Harry Cook, writes that "Gusukuma, an original student of Ankoh Itosu," (one of the early Shorin masters) said that "Itosu didn't know all the applications and felt that some of the movements [of kata] were just for show" (Fleming). If Itosu didn't know the applications for all of the moves in the classical kata of Shorin-ryu, how did he go about creating the Pinan series of kata? If you don't know what all of the applications are then how do you know which techniques to use in the Pinan series and which to leave out? Are you taking isolated techniques out, techniques that are actually part of sequences? What themes and principles are you going to use as the basis of these new kata if you're not sure of the applications in the first place? If the embusen (pattern) of the original kata don't carry any message that might demonstrate tai sabaki (off-line movement) because the applications are not fully understood, for instance, what message, if
any, will students be able to extract from the "H" or "I" pattern of the Pinan kata? And when you don't understand something, the very human tendency to change it to something you do understand--or create something you do understand--often steps in and takes over. Not to throw all of Shorin-ryu out with the bath water, but the Pinan series forms a large part of the curriculum in Shorin as well as Shotokan schools, so if you are learning to decipher kata through an analysis of the Pinan kata, you see the problem.

I read stuff over and over again from Shotokan practitioners who say that kata has no purpose other than as a performance art, that it's pointless to even look for meaning in kata. And no wonder, given its history. Certainly it's worth trying to find meaning in kata, but if you're practicing an art that is so far removed from its origins, it's going to be a hard slog at best. If you ask me, which of course you didn't, and me being from New England, I'd have to say, "Ya can't get they-ahh from hee-yahhh."


  1. Ah, the Pinan/Heian kata--quite possibly the most argued-about kata in Itosu-lineage styles! Not a common topic for Goju-Ryu people, though, so I was surprised to see you address it.

    1. Hi Noah, Yes, I suppose it was. But then having a Shorin practitioner read my blog is a little surprising too, I suppose. Ya think? Actually, I'd be curious to hear your take on things I've written about. I have always wondered how much of this is applicable to other Okinawan arts. All the best, Giles

    2. Haha, yes, I realize that I'm a bit of an outlier in the Shorin-Ryu community--I've had it pointed out on numerous occasions. I will say that Shotokan has definitely been changed a great deal, to the point where modern Shotokan doesn't even look like what Funakoshi's books show. Some changes cause more problems than others. While I respect what some Shotokan people are trying to do with finding applications to their kata, I usually take it with a grain of salt.

      I am more open to multiple interpretations of kata than others might be, and will generally consider any technique that works and fits the movements fairly closely to be valid. Since I know that the kata have been changed over the generations, and I don't know what all of those changes were or why they were made, I'm willing to accept a certain margin for error on how closely the application fits the kata. That said, I certainly prefer techniques that fit with the principles and themes of the kata being analyzed. Creativity is fine with me, up to a point.

      Now, I will admit that Shorin-Ryu has certainly lost material over time, between Itosu not knowing all the applications for his kata, and the changes brought on by Japanization, Westernization, and sportification. I also don't think Itosu taught everything to every student, either, and those students didn't teach everything to all of their students. Other people taught Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te, besides Itosu, and they likely did the same. This means that much of the material of Shorin-Ryu has been scattered. It isn't necessarily lost, but you'll be hard pressed to find all of it in one system. There are some of us who are trying to re-assemble it, though.

      Personally, I'm not fond of the Pinan kata, because I can practice Passai, Kusanku, and Chinto, instead, and get most of the same material in its "original" context. That said, I think that the Pinan kata are a good reference for the movements and themes that Itosu DID understand. As you alluded to, it doesn't really make sense to make new kata out of things you don't understand. I suspect that he assembled movements from older kata that he understood how to use, and did it in a way that they fit themes he wanted to address in small pieces to make it easier to teach to groups. Of course, I could be completely wrong about that--unless someone discovers some kind of personal notebook written by Itosu, I suspect we will never know for certain.

    3. Noah, what I'm curious about is whether Shorin kata, to someone curious enough to question and look at things, can be analyzed using some of the same principles of bunkai as Goju. For example, composed of combinations, which themselves are comprised of receiving/entry tech., followed by bridging or controlling tech., followed by finishing tech.; whether the turns show how to step off line; whether the target is generally the neck or head; and all without altering kata movement. That would tell me that there is some sort of Okinawan connection between Shorin and Goju. Anyway, I appreciate your comment.

    4. Ah, I see. Yes, I think that there are certainly principles that apply to both. The vast majority of our applications do follow the receive-control-finish approach, although we do have some that skip the control and go straight from receiving to finishing, and often the receiving and controlling are one and the same. The majority of our targets are in the neck and head, although we also often kick the legs as we receive, and strike the body as we control.

      Since our kata are collected from various sources, pre-Itosu, we can't even apply all the same principles across all of our kata. For example, sometimes, the turns do show how to step off-line, and what angle to take to your opponent, but other times, they are part of the finishing phase of the application.

    5. Any videos out there so I can see whether what you're describing is the same as Goju?

    6. I'm sure it won't be quite the same as Goju, even if similar principles are used. I don't have any videos that break down an entire kata using those principles, at least not that I can think of off the top of my head. Here is an example of one sequence from Naihanchi Sandan from my Sensei:


    7. Yes, it's hard for me to tell from just that clip since I can't see its relationship to the whole kata, and Naihanchi doesn't really move enough to see any possible angle movement. The only Naihanchi I'm really familiar with is Naihanchi Shodan. I was always under the impression that Naihanchi Sandan was a later construct, which, if true, means that it may not conform to the same rules as older kata. Still, this clip is not so much like Goju bunkai to me as it seems to be focused primarily on block-punch responses, but then again one short clip is such a small sample. If you think of any other ones, I would like to see more. Regards, Giles

    8. Yes, I'm afraid I don't have much footage showing how whole kata fit together, except for Naihanchi Shodan, which (as you said) doesn't move a whole lot. Naihanchi Sandan was a later creation, but it (and Naihanchi Nidan) were made as expansions of Naihanchi Shodan, using variations of techniques found in the original kata. I would certainly expect Shorin bunkai to be different from Goju bunkai--I know that what I've seen from a student of Taira Masaji Sensei has had many similarities, but also many differences. We do typically demonstrate our applications from punches, but the concepts being applied are more important than the attack. There are certainly applications that are more appropriate for pushes, grabs, etc. We also have many instances where the kata gives responses to your opponent defending the previous technique from the kata. This discussion is really making me wish we had a more thorough video showing these concepts as they fit into a higher level kata!

    9. Noah, it may be problematic to use "variations of techniques found in the original kata," as you say, since without the structure of the original kata they may not have been fully understood. I'm not a big fan of what Taira sensei has done with Goju kata. Because of the continuous nature of most of his bunkai, they often ignore the kata's message contained in the stepping, they usually just fight the opponent's arms, and nothing is taken to completion. Well, actually, that's just some of my complaints with what he's doing with kata and bunkai. They may be interesting and fun drills, but you won't find real bunkai in them. Just my opinion anyway, lest I draw the wrath of the Taira groupies. Lastly, you say "we do typically demonstrate our applications from punches." What I was referring to was that the counter-attacks seem mostly punching. Goju-ryu seems to have much more grabbing in closing the distance, controlling, and twisting the head. Regards, Giles

    10. Ah, I see what you mean, now. Yes, we do tend to be more striking oriented, although it isn't usually as much punching as fingertip attacks, forearm strikes, and elbows. We also incorporate limb control, joint attacks, and sweeps, but I suppose it has more of a "light" feel to it. There is distance closing, of course, but I think we tend to grab less, and while we do twist the head from time to time, it is not nearly as much as we strike it.

      As for Naihanchi Sandan and Nidan being "variations" on techniques from Shodan, I meant that from the application perspective, not simply the surface movements. Of course, since nobody wrote down the process used to develop all three Naihanchi kata, we can only make educated guesses. From our perspective, though, the applications for Naihanchi Nidan and Sandan are simply slight variations on applications for Shodan. Maybe it just turned out that way through luck--the world may never know.

      I can't really speak for Taira Sensei, but from what I have gathered, the continuous bunkai drills he does are a very small part of how they train. At least, I was told as much, and had it explained that the majority of their kata bunkai practice is done to the completion of each individual sequence. Of course, as a non-Goju-Ryu person, I can't really evaluate what they do through a Goju-Ryu lens.

    11. Noah, perhaps this is a better explanation, using the bunkai to Pinan Shodan that you did with your teacher. If I were applying the same principles that I use with Goju, the attacker is coming from the front (north) when you are standing in yoi. By shifting the weight to your right, the kata is showing you shifting off line, out of the way of the attack, a head punch. You are blocking with the left and hook punching with the right (the simplest explanation--Occam's Razor). Next, change the rhythm of all three hand techniques so that they flow, no gaps. After the hook punch, the right hand drops down (changing gate block to move from outside the arm to inside) clearing the opponent's left arm. This is immediately, seamlessly (no gaps), followed by the attack with the left arm. I believe this is the left forearm to the back of the neck because the technique that follows the sequence (on the second side) is a knee kick, I think. Anyway, that's what I see, though I don't like to apply the same principles to "training" kata like the Shorin Pinan series or the Goju Gekisai series. But this is an example of what I meant about applying the same principles of analysis.

    12. That is actually an application we use for that sequence in Pinan Shodan.actually! Most of the videos we post of applications are of the more "personal interpretation" variety, so we didn't include it in our Pinan Shodan video. :)

    13. *Sorry for the doubled use of "actually" in the above post, by the way. Editing error on my part!

  2. A Yankee truism...and very apropos.

  3. Hey, Narda. Haven't heard from you in awhile. Hope you are well and still training.

  4. Baby steps, sensei. Baby steps.
    Thank you for enquiring.