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Heian Kata history
February 16, 2006
Since we are planning to shoot the bunkai of Heian Kata soon, I think this fantastic article by my Shihan, Vince Morris (the founder of Kissaki Kai Karate) would be an appropriate introduction to deepen your understanding of these apparently "basic" Kata.
This is a very long but thoroughly eye-opening article so sit back, make yourself a cup of hot coffee and enjoy!
HEIAN KATA REVISITEDWhen I went to University, I had a particular interest in mediaeval studies, and I elected to study the history and language of the very earliest European colonisers, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
Arising in what we now know as parts of Germany, the warlike tribes robbed and looted their way throughout many parts of the continent, and eventually pushed their areas of settlement outwards until they had conquered vast tracts of land.
In England we see vestiges of these in the early placenames of villages and towns, even of counties. (Sussex, East Anglia and so on).
Hang on! Isn’t all this a million miles away from the subject?
Well, consider this:
When I first set my eyes upon manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) I was quite disturbed, as it immediately brought home to me the fact that it seemed nothing like modern English at all – I couldn’t understand a word!
I had made a fundamental mistake, and one which all my further studies over many years continued to remind me was easy to make but which had profound effects. I was trying to understand something from a point of view and a background knowledge which was fundamentally different from that which surrounded and permeated the object of my studies!
In other words, to understand even part of the early English texts I had to first learn the language, then I had to study the literature and the historical background of the texts in order to place them in their right context and begin to understand what the scribes were really trying to say to me.
Now consider the Heian or Pinan Kata.
I must have practised these a million times over the many years that I have trained, and I’m sure there are those of you who have been at it even longer.
But I own up! I had been doing so without thinking.
First of course, because for many years Asano sensei told me to just train, not ask questions, just train!
After that, when I did start to think for myself, I tended to discount the Heians as being merely training Katas drawn from earlier more advanced Kata with many of the techniques ‘watered down’ so that they could be used in the teaching of young people without being too dangerous.
Lately, however, I have been wondering if I have been a little unfair to Master Itosu, the deviser of the Kata.
To be honest, I’m still not sure, but here are a few of the considerations which have been exercising my mind.
We are informed that these Kata really saw the light of day in about 1906 when they were being used to teach students in the Okinawan High School system.
That may be the case, but this is to my mind a little too simplistic. These Kata didn’t spring into existence fully formed! They must have been constructed over time, and I doubt that such a renowned teacher as Itosu sensei would have just pulled techniques ‘out of the hat’ so to speak! I’m sure there must have been some underlying reason behind their construction, both in concept and in the practical considerations of selection of techniques.
So, there we have one problem, the ‘why’ of the Kata.
But then we come up against the next problem, that of context.
All of my early training was spent in trying to become faster, stronger, a more powerful fighter, a student my teacher could be proud of. I was completely immersed in a Dojo and a style which spent the vast majority of the time sweating, training hard, then training harder still!
Of course the practice of Kata figured largely in this regime; we would do them again and again, sometimes so often that we were so tired it was impossible to even keep our eyes open.
Fine, but then came the bunkai, the very ‘raison d’ętre’ of the Kata.
And this is where it all fell apart! We spent years trying to figure out applications which were powerful and effective, so as to understand the Kata which were so revered by the old masters.
We came up with many workable examples, and we came up with many which looked good, but which we really knew were going to be useless in real combat!
We developed a feeling that there must be something more, because what we constructed was only going to be effective if the opponent was going to co-operate!
Thus throughout our Dojo (and I know many other Dojo all over the world) there arose the idea that karate was powerful and effective, but that the benefit of Kata practice lay in developing stamina, rhythm, balance, technique, muscle-control, breathing and so on; not at all for self defense!
Now of course, Kata does promote all these things and more, but now we know that at heart they are compendiums of extremely effective techniques designed to defend against commonly occurring physical confrontations.
What was missing from our earlier training was the historical perspective, which would have insisted that we study the Kata only when we knew the language in which they were constructed. Just as with Anglo-Saxon, it was necessary to study the background and the history of the ages which produced the Kata.
But perhaps we did do this? In fact of course we did this! There is no doubt that we all looked at moves in the Kata and tried to fit into these moves all that we trained so hard in…unfortunately we were doomed to fail because we were studying the wrong language!
Just as Anglo-Saxon was incomprehensible to me when skilled only in Modern English, just so were the Kata which were being studied in the light of modern post 1920’s karate!
Taking the Heian\Pinan example, we know they were constructed prior to 1906. We also know that Mr Funakoshi himself was never taught these Kata by his teacher Itosu sensei, but learned them much later from another of Itosu sensei’s students, Master Kenwa Mabuni.
We also know that following its introduction into Japan karate underwent tremendous changes in order to comply with the movement from –Jutsu to –Do which was taking place in other combative arts (Judo, Kendo…etc.)
There is also no doubt that these changes and others were introduced to popularise the new art amongst the students at Universities, therefore it developed many sports characteristics at the expense of self-defense effectiveness.
(A common characteristic shared by all ‘-Do’ forms is the move away from pragmatic effectiveness in combat towards concentration upon aspects of internal self-development, with practical efficiency becoming subservient to ‘mastery of self’ – as if these two need any way be mutually incompatible.)
Distances were set to enhance ‘sport’ combat, and rules introduced which prohibited any of the original targets (the vulnerable areas of the human body) and also many of the original techniques (gouging, grappling, hair-pulling etc.)
So popular was this newly emergent sport – so powerful and athletic – that it was enthusiastically endorsed and promoted throughout the world, simply as ‘Karate’ – and this vision has impaired our understanding of Kata from the very start!
Of course we couldn’t get it to ‘make sense’! We were using the wrong language. To understand Kata it is necessary to understand the language of ‘Old’ karate, before it was so drastically transformed in the early 1900’s.
Many of you will be aware that I have spent many years now researching the effective applications within the Kata, but – I confess – only lately have I re-considered my attitude to the humble Heian Kata.
The fact is, many of the techniques within them are drawn from other high grade Kata, and so are obviously open to the same analysis as when they appear in the earlier Kata.
Now, the point to consider here is fundamental – Itosu sensei couldn’t possibly have seen either the complete Kata or the individual techniques in the same light as all of us who look at them through the training methods and technical considerations of a type of karate wholly alien to him and which he never knew!
I am now looking once again at the Heians, but through the language and knowledge of non-sports orientated Koryu Karate (Old Style, Ancient Stream).
Distances are close range, the vulnerable areas of the body are preferred targets, eye-gouging, hair-pulling, throwing, choking, grappling….all the elements which go to make up bunkai jutsu (ne-waza, nage-waza, kansetsu-waza, atemi-waza, shime-waza).
To these are added the ‘grammar’ of combat, (hikite, tai-sabaki, ashi-sabaki…etc.) then we stand a chance of correctly interpreting what Master Itosu was really trying to show us.
So, when we reappraise the Heians, what can we learn from them?
The first thing is to ask why Master Funakoshi changed the original order of Pinan Shodan and Nidan? Originally, what we now know as Heian Nidan was actually the first Kata in the series of five, and the one we now call Heian Shodan was actually the second. We are given to understand that Funakoshi sensei considered that the original second Kata was easier for his students to learn than the Kata that Itosu sensei had elected to be first.
This opens a number of questions:
Considering that Master Funakoshi didn’t learn these Kata until well after the changes were being made which was to transform original karate into modern karate, then which set of criteria was he using to establish their place in the Shotokan hierarchy – Old style or modern?
If we look at contemporary opinion, we do know that originally the type of karate taught by Master Funakoshi in the 1920’s emphasised the smashing of bricks and roof tiles, and that "application techniques" were "neither clearly defined nor refined" 1 and that : "After analysis of the forms was made….it lacked precise theory which could respond to the questions" 2.
Even allowing for the well known antipathy which existed between Master Funakoshi and Master Choki Motobu, it is interesting to note the latter’s comments about the validity of the karate as taught by the former:
Motobu insisted that Funakoshi was "An impostor!" He only "Imitated the elegant portion" of what had been developed by the two teachers Yazutsune Azato and Yazutsune Itosu.
Going on to say: "He demonstrates wrong toute that looks like truth!" 3
Another question is, perhaps this depends upon the manner in which they were taught by Mabuni sensei?
We know Master Funakoshi learned the 5 Pinan Kata from Master Mabuni at the age of 51, in the year 1919, and that he became known for teaching them, even to the extent of acquiring the nickname ‘Pinan Sensei’
What we really don’t know is just how much (or little) of the original combative principles (ura rather than omote) Master Itosu had included in the bunkai within these Kata.
Looking at the information provided to me by my good friend and colleague, Patrick McCarthy (the foremost scholar and researcher into the origins of the Martial Arts) there is little doubt that we might almost be considering three distinct types of karate:
That which developed from the Shaolin and which laid great emphasis upon two-man training which linked the self-defence techniques in isolation to its actual combat situation. According to Patrick: "Tegumi flow drills.. became an indispensable link in the perpetual chain of learning to apply that which was taught through kata."
That which Master Itosu was attempting to promote through the Pinan Kata and his recorded insistence upon the ‘modern’ forms of Kata being practised in favour of the older versions. One distinct difference immediately apparent is that this ‘modern Karate was no longer taught as formerly, on a more or less individual basis, but was standardised into group Kata training with little or no time for – as Patrick succinctly puts it – the ‘luxury’ of two-man drill training so as to fully understand the meaning of the various moves in actual combat.
The sport karate which predominates in the world today, which has placed so much emphasis upon long-range, rule-bound kumite that practically all of the original practice of emphasising the understanding of the basic concepts of combat exemplified within the Kata and grooving these manoeuvres into the karate-ka’s subconscious as a preconditioned response by constant practice with a partner has been lost.
We do know, however, that he was interested in promoting a modernised type of karate which would become the standard for everyone. For example, when Mabuni showed Master Itosu an early version of Naihanchi with Chinese influences apparent (taught to him by a student of Matsumura Sokon) Itosu told him to practise the ‘newer’ form instead.
Of course, it could be argued that this particular instance is evidence of the concern to move away from all things Chinese in favour of indigenous arts, but even if this were true, at what cost? It would have been simple enough to change the name without altering the techniques, but here this does not seem to be the case; no, it would appear that Master Itosu was concerned with developing a style or branch of karate which was inherently simpler.
We are informed that as the practise of Karate was to be introduced into the Okinawan educational system in order to promote the physical development of the students (essentially for military purposes) then the techniques which were taught were modified so as to make them ‘less dangerous’ than those in the higher level Kata in which they can also be found.
There is sense in this, but I wonder?
From all the studies I have made over the years of a variety of the ‘higher level’ Kata it seems to me that none of these techniques are ostensibly different in any major characteristic. Of course there are a few obvious changes, but in the main one could get no more from the ‘higher level’ Kata than from the Heian without the background knowledge of the original combative significance of the techniques!
We do not really know where the Kata came from anyway. Where they solely the product of Master Itosu’s desire to develop a unified ‘modern’ karate, and selected from a variety of other extant Kata, or was he building upon a much earlier work thought by some to be found in a secret book left to him by the teacher Channan, which allegedly had a profound influence upon him.
Discussing this with my friend the renowned teacher and scholar Patrick McCarthy he made the following observations:
"Itosu was a man of wealth (?) and position; i.e. influence. Having been a student of Uchinadi as a young man he was an ardent supporter and a typical patriot. Most of the history you are already aware of (published throughout much of my work) however, what you may not be aware of is that Itosu spent many years seeking out and working with many of the local experts of his time who, even to this day, still remain anonymous. His comparative analysis was carried out for the expressed purpose of structuring a modified teaching/learning system to accommodate Japan's war machine. Focusing upon physical fitness and character development, Itosu's hybrid served as the adjunct through which "boys were turned into men," and better prepared to meet their two year mandatory military obligation. After all, Budo (martial arts) was "the way common men built uncommon strength and courage," as Butokukai propaganda promised. The actual Pinan structures themselves merely represent miniature geometrical configurations of those principal defensive paradigms known in and around the old castle district of Shuri."
This said, we are still left with the puzzle as to why certain techniques were selected over others.
Of course it doesn’t really matter. What does is that whatever the source or the intention we are now the possessors of a series of 5 Kata which are practised by thousands all over the world, and Patrick’s point about them being: "defensive paradigms" is of absolute paramount importance!
If you go once again to these Kata, and analyse them with the correct tools (for just as the words in a dictionary are not sufficient on their own to enable one to communicate properly in a language - to become fluent it is necessary to bring to the words a knowledge of grammar, syntax, word order, slang usage and so on) then I feel sure you will be amazed at the vast amount of extremely effective techniques that they contain!
In Kissaki-Kai we think we have been able to analyse at least three main concepts which each of the 5 Kata are teaching, and, moreover, the reason that Master Itosu selected what is now the 2nd Kata to be the first!
What we first thought of as simply teaching aids before attempting ‘higher’ Kata, we now see as fundamental to real self-defense and the principles of combat. In their own right, the Pinan \ Heian Kata are much more than what may be seen through the eyes of ‘modern’ karate.
Why not take another look?
I have one final observation. If Master Itosu was indeed really concerned with developing a 'new' standard Karate, would he not have selected the very best techniques that he knew to form the basis of this 'style?
I know I would! Therefore perhaps the Pinan \ Heians are not just chosen because they are easier for young people to master, but were carefully constructed from a distillation of all that Master Itosu considered to be the best and most effective techniques from all the other earlier Kata that he knew!
But there yet another consideration: Even if Master Itosu deliberately set out to standardise a form of karate which did not include the practise of Tegumi, and lacked the concurrent teaching of the underlying ‘rules of combat, this in no way stops the individual student from going back to the source. Of course, given the later changes initiated by Master Funakoshi, it may well be that Shotokan stylists would benefit from looking at the Pinan forms of the Kata rather than the Heian.
Anyone who can should attend one of Patrick’s seminars on Tegumi and those who do will come away enormously enriched in their awareness of the profundity of the early training methods, but even if you do not wish to take on the task of learning all the drills at least analyse each technique within your kata in the light of all the ancillary factors (the ‘rules of combat’) which we have looked at above, and then practice the moves over and over again with a partner.
Begin to get an insight into which moves are throws, which blocks, which strangles, which locks…and so on.
Then perhaps we can again see the Kata as the repository of the sum total of combat skills devised over centuries.
Now there's a thought....!
Returning to the puzzle of why Master Itosu chose the current Heian Nidan to be the first Kata in the series, I have come to believe that it has to do with the opening moves being a 'flinch response' to an unexpected attack, and as such builds immediately upon every student's natural reaction; but I'll talk more of this later.
And – as always – I am indebted to the contribution to the extant corpus of knowledge made freely available by Patrick McCarthy.
1 Yasuhiro Konishi ‘Karate & His Life’ by Kouzo Kaku P.12 Patrick McCarthy.
Copyright © 2001 Kissaki-Kai Karate-Do
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