My friend was training in a traditional Goju Ryu club and all he ever seemed to do was kata, and predictably when we sparred with him he didn’t have the skills we had.
Kata seemed to be a necessary evil to us. We fought all lesson and then for the last 15 minutes, did some kata. Maybe it was a Japanese thing, take the rough with the smooth. I certainly never found much value in it.
Remember that in, say 1995 nobody had the internet so if you wanted to read up on kata you had to buy a book, and my local town wasn’t exactly cosmopolitan when it came to specialist cultural arts!
Granted, some of the kata – particularly Bassai Dai – looked dynamic when the black belts did them, but our kata like the first three Taikyoku forms seemed like an exercise in being obsessed with Gedan Barai – a move we never did in sparring.
In 1996 I found an old book on Ed Parker’s Kenpo Karate. The book was from the 1960s I would guess and emphasised Karate’s Chinese – rather than Japanese – origins. It showed Chinese weaponry but also showed a two man drill featuring many of the moves I knew from kata.
Then I asked Sensei about the kata and he said: “A block is a strike and a block is a throw.”
It started to fit together. Maybe I needed to forget about the long range techniques that we used in Karate sparring and concentrate on the self defence moves I had learnt. Sensei had taught us lots of Judo throws, Aikido locks and so on. Maybe it was these moves that were within the kata.
By 1999 I was also studying the Yang Style Long form in Tai Chi and once again I saw techniques that were open to interpretation. Some of them were fairly obviously punches – but what about “Fair Lady Works Shuttles”, “Needle at Sea Bottom” and “Carry Tiger to Mountain” – it was almost as if the person designing the forms wanted us to choose our own applications.
In 2000 Sensei let me open my own club and in February 2001 the “Northwest College of Martial Arts Bushidokan” (later Bushinkai) was launched. Although at this point I was training for my 2nd Dan as well as studying Jujutsu and Tai Chi I still very much viewed my martial arts as separate and compartmentalised. My arts themselves may have been kept separate, but by this point I had a decent repertoire, a good collection of reference books and an understanding of the different approaches in Chinese, Japanese and Okinawan martial arts.
In 2001 I was training in Karate under Sensei Bob Carruthers and in Jujutsu under Sensei Jaimie Lee-Barron’s group.
I also began training with another instructor who opened my eyes to another facet of Karate.
Sensei Steven Brennan was one of Bob Carruthers’ senior students. He had started training in 1974 with the KUGB under Billy Higgins, he then joined Bob as a blue belt and later trained under Joe Ellis and Roy Stanhope. Since 2000 though he had been attending seminars in Yorkshire with one of Patrick McCarthy’s Koryu Uchinadi instructors. Steve and I paired up for his 3rd Dan grading and my 2nd Dan. We both passed since you asked – his grading kata was Hangetsu, mine was Empi.
Steve Brennan introduced me to what he called TNT Karate – the TNT stood for “techniques not taught” namely the nasty breaking, ripping and pressure point techniques found within kata. He also re-aquainted me with the idea of two-man flow drills.
One of my senior students at the time Steve Chriscole masterminded a martial arts magazine designed purely for the kata enthusiast called Kata Unlimited. I contributed to every issue, usually with puns like “let’s stance” and he also got contributions from the likes of Patrick McCarthy, Rick Clarke, Iain Abernathy, Bill Burgar and Reiner Parsons (who would later become my teacher). Ideas were exchanged (and pinched) and it all went towards shaping understanding of this thing we call Bunkai.
So I came to realise that Kata was not just a dance or a pointless tradition – or a classical mess as Bruce Lee called it.
I realised kata was a database of techniques. Every throw I could find in Judo, I found in a Karate kata. Every lock, throw, twist and crank in Aikido is in a Karate kata.
My real syllabus was not the A4 booklet in my kitbag my real syllabus was kata.
I began to catalogue every single technique (including the intermediate “stack ups”) in every single kata I knew and came up with a variation of realistic bunkai based on Patrick McCarthy’s 36 HAPV theory.
By 2003 I was training in both “branches” of Karate – in the Shoto/Shuri/Shorin school with Bob Carruthers and in the Goju/Naha/Shorei branch with Reiner Parsons. I was still working through “TNT” Uchinadi with Steve Brennan, and was also studying Jujutsu and Judo on seminars (under the late Shizuya Sato) with the likes of Jack Hearn and Ray Walker. I was maintaining my Tai Chi study (which also included a little Hsing-I) and teaching my own class.
Now at this point, I was a firm believer (as I am now) that Kata is a mneumonic (memory aid) to act as a database of techniques already learnt.
In other words, the old practitioners learnt a technique (say a wrist lock) and then when they learnt the kata, they recognised the movement and were able to understand the kata based on a lesson already imparted.
I had spent some years reverse-engineering this process – learning the kata and then deciphering the applications. Once I had done that I could teach my students the correct method.
So we learn our basic fighting techniques and theory – punches, kicks, throws, knees, elbows, breaks, heabutts etc and then when we come to learn the kata I point out where in the form these moves occur.
As an aside we also learn to perform each kata with a weapon.
So if we take the opening two moves for Heian Shodan (lower block and lunge punch) we get a myriad of applications. But first we must realise that these two moves are not just two moves. They are as follows:
1) Yoi Position. Body facing the front. Weight distributed evenly
2) Turn and “stack up” as if to begin a Gedan Barai.
3) Move into Gedan Barai and Zenkutsu Dachi Position
4) Gedan Barai hand moves upwards as punch begins and feet arc to centre
5) Move into Oi Tzuki and Zenkutsu Dachi
So we can interprite this technique as simply a block and punch or we can work an application from a full clinch where the stack up and gedan barai are done to Kuzushi. We can also use the “stack up” as a Jeet Kune Do style guard in itself and slide in with the Gedan Barai as a throw. The Gedan Barai can be a Tai Otoshi throw, it can be an Aikido robuse (“Ikkyo”) and the Oi Tsuki can be an Osoto Gari throw. It can also be a parry and strike with a sai, a tonfa, or a Bo.
And that’s just the first two moves of the basic kata. Wait til we get to move 56 of Kanku Dai!
So now, assuming you (as reader of this humble blog) take my word for it that the techniques contained within kata represent all the most effective self defence techniques known to man… You may still be left with a question: Why not just learn the self defence without the kata. You may think: Why do I need 13 kata to be my syllabus when I have a printed curriculum, a book, a DVD and clips on Youtube. Why can’t we just learn the self defence without the kata?
The thing is, if you are an experienced martial artist who has many years training behind them, you probably can get by just by learning new self defence tricks, because you already have the skills, reactions, temperament and knowledge necessary to apply them but if you are new to martial arts I believe in learning a style in the right order. Learn the letters, then the words, then the sentences.
So am I saying that kata is for beginners and advanced should forget them? No.
I’m saying advanced can discard one aspect of kata. And that aspect is kata. I’m saying they can. I’m not saying they should.
Put it like this, could Mohammad Ali have won some of his fights without a trainer in his corner, coaching him. Yeah, probably. But should he have done this. No. Did he do this? No.
Kata has many other advantages. Certain moves in the forms exercise the brain in unique ways. When we step with the left and punch with the right we are exercises the part of the brain that governs “fight or flight” – exercicising this part of the brain therefore keeps us calm under pressure.
Now, think about my previous paragraph: “Discard one aspect of kata. And that aspect is kata” – how can kata be an aspect of kata?
Because in the old days (and I don’t mean the 1980s) the word for kata and the word for style were the same thing.
Nowadays Shotokan has about 27 kata and Goju Ryu has about 13. In ye olden days each style had one form and that form was the stylistic representation of that style? Make sense?
Gichin Funakoshi knew this when he classified his kata as either Shorin Ryu or Shorei Ryu – the trouble is he needed to elaborate on this a little.
In Tai Chi (Taiji Quan) there was the Yang family. And each member of the Yang family practiced the same form. Yang Lu Chan practiced his form one way, and Yang Ban Hou practiced it another. Nowadays we call this form the “108 step” but back then it didn’t need a name. It was just the Yang family “Quan” – it was their style, their form, their syllabus and their way of keeping healthy.
Similarly in Fujian, you may have learned Monk Quan, Crane Quan, Lion Quan etc and the idea of style and form were one and the same.
Eventually Fujian (particularly the vaunted Kojo Dojo) came to be a melting pot and drop-in centre for martial artists and practitioners of different STYLES learned each others’ FORMS.
Think of it like this, in Tai Chi, a Yang master could have learned a Wu style form. But he would not be a master of Wu style, just a practitioner of one aspect of the style – namely the form.
Karate masters like Funakoshi and Mabuni took a hotchpotch of forms from different styles and attempted to make them into one style, respectively Shoto Ryu and Shito Ryu. But the idea of one style having 27 forms is a pretty modern one.
This is why in Bushinkai, our Toshu Jutsu forms are treated as different styles.
Style 1: Channan Quan (the five Pinan or Heian forms)
The fundamental method of Karate. Covers all ranges and weapons. Essentially a type of “long fist,” stances commonly used include front stance, back stance and horse stance. Techniques advance laterally and sink into stances. Weapons include Bo, Sai, Tonfa, Dip Dao and Nunchaku. This style uses a fairly basic 1-2-3 rhythym. We keep in mind master Itosu, a lean agile and powerful warrior.
Associated exercises: Forearm hardening and wrist drills. Sparring and weapons training. Aikido type controls and Tenkan.
Style 3: Naihanchi Quan (the Tekki forms)
Movements in this style are softer and the rhythym is more advanced. There many be many fast hand movements for each foot movement. The feeling is of tearing, breaking and crushing. We keep in mind master Motubu, a stocky powerful close range fighter fond of elbows and low blows. This style may come from a style taught by Ason called “half crane half hillock boxing.”
Associated exercises: Makiwara, Close-in grappling, ground-fighting, Judo type throws
Style 4: Shorei Quan (the Goju forms including Gekisai)
The body is held more squarely and there is a sense of internal power. There is no hard “kime” and moves are more circular. Techniques drive relentlessly toward the opponent. A typical sequence being the kick, elbow, backfist, barai, reverse punch in Gekisai. Kata can also be performed with weapons such as Sai. We keep in mind master Miyagi, a strong muscular powerful master.
Associated exercises: Okinawan strength training with apparatus, slow speed flow grappling. Two-man flow drills. Breathing exercises for power.
Style 5: Bazi Quan (the Bassai or Passai forms)
The Bassai form looks much like the Heian forms (particularly Heian Godan) but the feeling is slightly different. The rhythym is more “urgent” and it includes techniques (such as the opening move) where we must adopt an attitude of rising and dropping. We lift and we suddenly crash into the opponent. We keep in mind master Matsumura, the king’s bodyguard in Shuri Castle. He was not a big stocky man, he was lean and wirey but he had tremendous explosive power. It is easy to see why people thought Bassai (to extract) meant “to storm a fortress” – this is the mind-set of this style. It has attributes of old Baji Quan and uses lifting, stomping, cannon-like techniques. If Bassai were an internal art it would be most like Pakua Zhang.
Associated exercises: Bassai Sho may be performed with a katana, showing Matsumura’s Jigen Ryu influence.
Style 6: Kushanku Quan (the Kanku or Kushanku forms)
Kanku is also related to the Heian forms but is also a distant relative of Taiji Quan. Masters Sakugawa and Yara who pioneered this kata trained under Wang Xong Yue prior to him coining the phrase Taiji Quan. He taught them Qi Gong, Hsing-I Quan and twin swords (Dip Dao).
The opening move of Kanku Dai may be used as Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation) which aids relaxation and circulation. It includes several Taiji techniques including Snake Spits Tongue and Snake Creeps Down. The feeling of Kanku Dai is similar to Heian but has a more “open gate” approach. Kanku is the closest the Shuri/Shoto family has to a form that is representative of its style. It is no coincidence that when Funakoshi first demonstrated Karate for the Japanese he chose this kata. When we practice this kata we keep in mind master Sakugawa and Master Funakoshi.
Associated exercises: Butterfly swords, chi kung, zhan zhuang
Style 7: Wansu Quan (the Wansu or Empi kata)
I have discussed Empi at length in a previous Blog post so I won’t repeat myself here. Except to say that Wansu is representative of the Swallow Form of Hsing-I Quan and has a distinct method of fighting. Like Sun Style Taiji Quan (which is also derived from Hsing-I), this form teaches an advancing and retreating method (think like the way a featherweight would fight a heavyweight). Its shuto and gyaku tzuki are the splitting and pounding techniques of Hsing-I and Shuto can also be held as a standing posture (San-ti). Whereas the Heian forms teach the first level of striking power (sinking) this teaches the second level (rising). We keep in mind the old Tomari masters such as Takahara.
Associated exercies: Hsing-I fists, San-Ti, Chinese straight sword (Jian).
Style 8: Aragaki Quan (Nijushiho/Niseishi, Wankan, Sochin, Unsu)
The forms Aragaki Seisho studied in China are the first Shaolin forms we meet. Not for nothing was he nicknamed the Cat and these forms make generous use of cat stance. The style of fighting is one of relentless, yet beautiful Kung Fu with the agility and unpredictable movements of a a tiger. When practicing these forms we must remember these are a completely different style to what we have learned before – in fact it is likely Master Funakoshi never even knew these forms. He certainly never taught them publicly or in his books. We keep in mind master Aragaki. These forms teach dynamic entering techniques, close in elbows, traps and a certain efficiency of fighting. Unsu is one of the most athletic and gymnastic forms in the whole canon. The Aragaki forms Unsu and Nijushiho have equivalents in Goju Ryu.
Associated exercises: Shaolin breathing exercises
Style 9: Advanced Shorei (Hangetsu/Seishan and higher Goju forms)
In Goju Ryu, the backbone are forms such as Sanchin, Seishan, Suparimpei and Seiunchin. They are clearly related and may have originally come from one source. Of these the Shoto family only practices Seishan/Hangetsu. This style is thought to have been taught to Matsumura by Iwah and to Kanryo Higaonna by Ryuruko at the Kojo Dojo in Fujian. Patrick McCarthy has suggested that the style was “whooping crane” but they have more charcteristics of Lion Boxing. With this style, what is important is not so much the applications as the power generation in the movements. I don’t think anyone would look at Sanchin and think it was the combat equivalent of Bassai. These forms epitomise the five principles of martial arts that were taught to me by Reiner Parsons:
2) Use the waist
4) Train Slowly
5) Two Directions.
The contrary actions of the kata (step with left, block with right) provide a workout for the brain. These kata also contain a hard chi kung type of breathing which invigorates the body and the blood cells. With these forms we keep in mind master Higaonna.
Style 10: Tomari Quan (including Jutte/Jin/Jian, Chinto/Chinte, Meikyo)
These forms were most likely introduced to Tomari (a rocky cavernous part of Okinawa) by a master called Anan or Chinto. He may have been Vietnamese but the style has definite hallmarks of white crane as well as Five Ancestor Fist. Like the Aragaki branch, these forms resemble Shaolin crane and monk styles. Perhaps the Okinawans in rocky Tomari valued the one-legged crane stances for fighting on uneven terrain. Jutte has some similarities to Taiji (the hold the ball posture) and can also be performed with a Bo staff which again gives that “Shaolin Monk” feel.
Associated exercises: Bo kata
I will now divide these forms into groups, combining their origin with a classification:
1) Channan Quan (Long Fist)
(a) Pinan (Heian 1-5)
PIONEER: Yasutsune Itosu
2) Naifanchi Quan
(a) Naihanchi (Tekki 1-3)
PIONEERS: Ason and Sokon Matsumura
3) Wutang Quan
(a) Bazi Quan (Bassai Dai, sho) PIONEERS: Iwah & Matsumura
(b) Kushanku Quan (Kanku dai, so)PIONEERS: Wang, Sakugawa, Yara
(c) Wansu Quan (Empi) PIONEERS: Wansu & Takahara Peichin
4) Shorei Quan (Southern/Fujian type)
(a) Goju basic (Gekisai, Saifa) PIONEER: Chojun Miyagu
(b) Goju advanced (Seishan etc) PIONEER: Higaonna Kanryo & others
5) Shorin Quan (Shaolin type)
(a) Aragaki group (Nijushiho, Unsu, Sochin, Wankan) PIONEER: Aragaki
(b) Tomari group (Jutte, Jin, Jion, Chinte, Gankaku, Meikyo) PIONEERS: Anan, Mastumora, Gusukuma
(c) Useishi (Gojushiho) PIONEER: Matsumura
So we have now grouped our curriculum into five Quan. The first is Channan Quan (Long Fist) comprising Heian katas, which is our basic starting style from white belt up to purple belt. It introduces students to long and short range techniques as well as weapons.
We are next introduced to Naifanchi Quan (Tekki) and the first of the Shorei Quan (Gekisai) both introduce us to more close-in grappling.
The fourth style we meet is from the Wutang style that is to say forms derived from the arts of Hsing-I Quan, Bazi Quan and Taiji Quan. They have a light internal quality and make use of lifting and dropping power. They also have a Qi Gong aspect.
The fifth style is the Shaolin forms like Nijushiho and Jutte. They introduce a new type of body mechanics and power generation.
So kata (style) is not just about kata (form).
When we practice with Sai, we do so in the manner of the Channan (Heian) forms.
When we practice our slow, flowing close-in sparring we are training in the Shorei method.
Everything we do in Toshu Jutsu, from the simplest throw to the most precise pressure point is one of these traditions.
Therefore can we discard kata? No. Because if we did there would be no Toshu Jutsu.
A punch is a block and a block is a throw, but a kata is a style and a style is a kata.
Shorin and Shorei
KATA: Pinan/HeianChang Quan (Long Fist) was developed in the 10th century by Zhao Kuangyin, founding Emperor of the Song Dynasty (960–1279). His style was called Tàizǔ Chángquán, which means “the Long Fist style of Emperor Taizu. Chang Quan was famed for its deep stances, lunge punches and dynamic kicks.
By the 16th century the practice of solo forms had fallen out of vogue and had all but disappeared but one military general saw value in them.
Qi Jiguang (November 12, 1528 – January 5, 1588) was a Chinese military general and national hero during the Ming Dynasty.
He wrote various martial arts manuals and his interpretation of the Chang Quan seems to have influenced many different arts including Chen Taiji Quan and Karate.
Chang Quan was probably introduced to Okinawa in th 1750s when “Kushanku” taught Tode Sakugawa. In turn Sakugawa taught Matsumura and Matsumura taught Itosu.
Originally there was a style called Channan (perhaps the local pronunciation of Chang Quan) and Itosu renamed this Pinan. Funakoshi in turn renamed it Heian.
It is said of Chang Quan: “The forms of the Long Fist style emphasize fully extended kicks and striking techniques, and by appearance would be considered a long-range fighting system. In some Long Fist styles the motto is that “the best defense is a strong offense,” Long Fist uses large, extended, circular movements to improve overall body mobility in the muscles, tendons, and joints. Advanced Long Fist techniques include qin na joint-locking techniques and shuai jiao throws and takedowns.
Key techniques: Stepping punch, Front kick, Rising Block, Lower Block.
Characteristics: Long range techniques with short range techniques disguised. Dynamic movement, stepping and turning.
Hidden gems: A wealth of short range locks, chokes and hidden applications. The forms may also be performed with weapons, notably the sai, bo and nunchaku.
SCHOOL TWO: Naifanchi Quan
Naihanchi may come from a Taiwanese style of White Crane Boxing, known as Dan Qiu Ban Bai He Quan (Half Hillock, Half White Crane Boxing). One form from this style is called Neixi (inside knee) in Mandarin. This form includes the same sweeping action found in the nami-gaeshi (returning wave) technique of Naihanchi. Neixi is pronounced Nohanchi in Fuzhou dialect, which could indicate Neixi is the forerunner to Naihanchi.
Naihanchi was introduced to Okinawa in the mid 19th century by a master named Ason. He taught the form to Sokon Matsumura.
From this point Naihanchi was the first form taught in Shuri and Tomari. It was considered more fundamental that the Channan/Pinan forms.
Notable practitioners include Matsumura, Matsumora, and the famous Choki Motobu.
Naihanchi does not move on a forward-back embusen like the Channan group.
The kata assumes a close-in clinch range.
If you watch MMA and see the two fighters standing in a clinch with one with his back to the cage, you will see the strategies of Naihanchi.
In MMA this is called “dirty boxing” because the only techniques that are possible at this range are those outlawed in boxing – such as rabbit punches, kidney punches, headbutts, knee strikes and stamps.
Key techniques: Clinch, returning wave kick, neck cranks
Characteristics: Short range techniques with only side movement.
Hidden gems: Ripping, tearing and throwing techniques
STYLE THREE: WUTANG QUAN
FORMS: Bassai Dai, Bassai Sho, Kanku Dai, Kanku Sho, Empi
In Chinese martial arts, different schools are either defined as Shaolin/Buddhist or Wutang/Taoist. This doesn’t really mean these arts all originated from either the Shaolin Temple or Mount Wutang, but it is an easy way of categorising.
Generally the Shaolin arts are quite external but have an Indian/Buddhist influence which is quite Yoga-esque.
The Wutang arts are culturally Chinese (without Indian influence) and have Taoist symbolism. They usually are considered internal and include Chi training.
Examples of Wutang arts are: Taiji Quan (Tai Chi), Hisng-I Quan, Bagua Zhang and Baji Quan.
In Okinawa, the very first Quan to strongly influence Toshu Jutsu was “Hsin-I Quan” (the forerunner of Hsing-I which was taught by Wang-Ji (Wansu) to Hama Higa and his student Takahara Peichin.
This art emphasises the rising and swooping of the swallow and its light movements.
Within this art is also a powerful Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation) called San-Ti which resembles the opening move of Heian Yondan.
Key techniques in Wansu are the Gyaku Tzuki and Shuto Uke as well as the stepping in and sinking movement.
The Bassai forms, I believe come from a forerunner of Baji Quan called Bazi Quan and represent the powerful stomping and sinking movements of the Lion. Matsumura learnt this art in the 1830s around the time he was also studying Jigen Ryu in Japan.
Key techniques are the “lion’s jaw” (Yama Zuki, mountain punch) and the lifting and sinking of weight.
The Kanku forms, like the Channan were introduced to Okinawa in the 1750s and as I described in my previous blog are both related to Taiji Quan. Within Kanku are the movements of the crane and the snake that are fundamental to Taiji Quan.
Characteristics: Light techniques, lifting and sinking, changing of rhythym
Hidden Gems: takedowns, tackles, throws and slams
STYLE FOUR: SHOREI QUAN
FORMS: Gekisai, Seishan and other Goju Ryu forms
In 1828 Sokon Matsumura and his friend Peichin Kojo went to Fujian, China. Matsumura was already armed with knowledge of the Wutang school having studied Wansu quan under Sakugawa and Kushanku quan under Chatan Yara. Matsumura studied a form called Seishan and posisbly also Useishi (Gojushiho) and brought them back to Shuri.
Subsequently Kojo and Seisho Aragaki maintained their study in Fujian and brought many more forms back to Naha including Sanchin.
Aragaki’s student Higaonna Kanryo went to Fujian and studied under Ryuru Ko and this was to be the beginning of Naha Te (forerunner of Goju Ryu, Ryuei Ryu and Pangai Noon).
These forms, thought to be related to Fujian white crane, include Sanchin, Seishan, Suparimpei and are very typical of “Southern Temple” Shaolin.
We must also understand that Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi (student of Higaonna) studied White Crane with Gokenki and Tang Daiji.
My own teacher Reiner Parsons was taught by Tadanori Nobetsu who studied both branches – Goju Ryu and Feeding Crane.
Key techniques: Inside block, reverse punch
Characteristics: Close-in fighting, solid grounded base, sliding in
Hidden gems: Internal training, hard Chi Kung
STYLE FIVE: SHORIN QUAN
FORMS: Niseishi, Jutte, Wankan, Sochin, Unsu etc
The true Shorin school (Shaolin) represents the forms introduced to Tomari by Anan in the 1850s and the forms brought back from China in the 1840s by Seisho Aragaki.
If we take Niseishi (Nijushiho) as a prime example we see various Shaolin traits such as the Buddhist numbering (Nijushiho meaning 24 steps, 24 being a factor of the holy 108).
Niseishi begins close range with a clinch, coils back, closes off the opponent and strikes. It moves like a dragon.
Niseishi, like Wankan also contain Aragaki’s famous technique of catching the arm or leg of the opponent and taking them down.
Whereas the Channan method disguises its grappling, the Aragaki group make no bones about its traps and breaks.
Key techniques: Cat stance, crane stance, double palm heel
Characteristics: Light fast movements, relentless attacks, Chin na breaks
Hidden gems: Coiling and springing power, deceptively advanced power generation.
This concludes my introduction to the five schools of Toshu Jutsu.