Bassai is one of the most important kata in the Shoto Ryu family. It is almost always a requirement for blackbelt. I also know of nobody who cites it as their least favourite kata.
When looking at Bassai, we will begin with the name. When Bassai was introduced to these shores in the 1950s-1970s, everybody translated the name as “Penetrate the Fortress” when actually the Kanji seem to read nothing of the sort.
Bassai is comprised of the characters Batsu (also pronounced Nukitsu) which means withdraw (a drawing cut in Iaido is called Nukitsuke); and Sai which means obstruct.
Bassai therefore means to withdraw and obstruct. However, Funakoshi uses the character Chai (fortress) rather than Sai and it has been argued that “to blockade a fortress” is a reasonable translation.
However it is possible that in the days when few martial artists could read or write, it is possible Bassai meant nothing of the sort.
In Tai Chi the move Lan Za Yi (lazily tying the coat) was misheard in another region of the country as Lan que wei (grasp sparrow’s tail) – thereby completely changing the meaning of the move. Likewise with Dao Jun Hao and Dao Jun Hong – changing the meaning of the move from “repulse the monkey” to “whirl the arms”.
As I have pointed out in previous articles, there is a style in China called Baji Quan (originally Bazi Quan which has forms called Baji Da and Baji Xiao. An Okinawan like Matsumura could have easily misheard Baji as Bassai.
In previous articles I have also presented my theory that this art, Bazi Quan, originally meant White Lion Boxing. Okinawan Karate researcher Akio Kinjo pointed out that Bassai shares techniques with Lion Boxing.
The Chinese word for white is pai or bai and in the Fujian dialect “lion” is “sai” so Baisai or Paisai would mean White Lion.
In my Kata study of Heian Sandan I pointed out that it was likely Matsumura was aquainted with Baji Quan practitioner Dong Hai Chuan – perhaps this is the root of Bassai.
In the 1600s a Japanese physician named Akiyama went to China and studied a fighting art which, depending on how the Kanji is translated, can be called Hakuda, Hakushi, Shubaku or Baida.
The syllables are:
Haku/Baku/Bai – meaning white
Da/Shu – meaning hand (the same as Te)
Shi – meaning lion
So what was this Te that Akiyama studied? My money is on White Lion Boxing. The Shi in Hakushi is the same as the Fujian Sai (lion).
The syllables “Bai shi da” seen in “baida, hakushi, hakuda” are the same as Bassai Dai (white lion hand – rather than blockade the fortress major).
According to my calculations Bushi Matsumura of Shuri and Bushi Kojo of Kume went to Fujian in 1828. Matsumura was already a formidable fighter in his prime (aged about 30). He had been taught Toshu Jutsu and Bojutsu by Sakugawa and also taught some Quan Fa by Chatan Yara who we will meet in my study of Kanku Dai. He had also studied the Japanese style Jigen Ryu which meant he was a master of the sword.
At the “Kojo Dojo” in Fujian, Matsumura and his friend were exposed to various Chinese forms, which we now think included the following forms:
While it is likely Matsumura studied Hangetsu, Jutte and Gojushiho while staying at the Kojo Dojo it would appear that something else inspired him more.
That something was the form we now know as Bassai.
When Matsumura returned to Okinawa he was not a professional Karate instructor. There was no Shuri Te, no Naha Te and no Tomari Te. Instead there were civilians, and there were professional fighters.
Matsumura was the latter.
Bushi Matsumura was the KIng’s bodyguard. He organised the defences to Shuri Castle. Therefore his approach was not “self defence.” Matsumura’s priorities were:
1) Keeping the king alive by protecting him and guarding him
2) Keeping the king alive by hand picking and training all the staff at the castle
3) Keeping the king alive by teaching him to defend himself
4) Identifying any threats to the king and destroying them
It is interesting that the two forms we most closely associate with Matsumura are Tekki and Bassai.
In Tekki we imagine the imposing bodyguard with his back to the wall grabbing a hostage, knocking them out with victious knee strikes and breaking their neck.
Now in Bassai we see Matsumura cutting his way through a crowd impatiently and decimating enemy threats. In Bassai the kata is one of relentless aggression.
Bassai’s opening movement sees Matsumura slam all of his bodyweight into the opponent. The first Kiai point sees him spin and opponent round and finish him with a rear naked choke. At the end of the kata Matsumura bombards and opponent with three powerful Yamazukis before dumping them to the ground and then knifing through a crowd with a final devastating strike. Bassai is not like Sanchin – it is not an exercise in isometric tension. Bassai is perhaps Shoto Ryu’s most aggressive kata.
It is likely that the oldest version of Bassai is the one we call Matsumura Bassai. Another version probably authored by Matsumura’s friend Kokan Matsumora is Tomari Bassai.
However it is also possible that the oldest of all is the form we call Bassai Guwa (Passai Gwa) and that this was the original way Matsumura taught it.
It is thought Master Itosu took Matsumura’s original Bassai to create Bassai Dai and drew on Passai Gwa to create Bassai Sho.
In Bushinkai we learn Bassai Dai at around 3rd Kyu brown belt and Bassai Sho after 4th Dan blackbelt. I will look at Bassai Sho in a future article.